Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Don't call it 'student' debt

By Van Jones
updated 7:50 PM EDT, Thu July 31, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Van Jones: Call student debt "education debt" as entire families are paying cost
  • Jones: Family who lost daughter and inherited huge debt shows system is broken
  • Jones: Lenders use deceptive marketing, sky-high interest rates and hidden fees
  • He says it's outrageous that private student loans cannot be discharged

Editor's note: Van Jones is a co-host of CNN's "Crossfire," which airs weeknights at 6:30 ET. He is president and founder of Rebuild the Dream, an online platform focusing on policy, economics and media. He was President Barack Obama's green jobs adviser in 2009. He is also founder of Green for All, a national organization working to build a green economy. Follow him on Twitter @VanJones68. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

(CNN) -- The first thing we need to do to get serious about student debt? Stop calling it "student debt."

"College debt" or "education debt" might work. Anything but student debt -- because not just students but entire families are paying the cost of our broken system for funding higher education.

Van Jones
Van Jones

Case in point: The other day, one of the top stories on CNN.com was about two grieving parents who lost their child but are still stuck with her student loan bills.

This story represents so much about what is wrong with our system of financing higher education -- not to mention our national priorities.

The full story is worth reading, but here is the short version: Steve Mason co-signed $100,000 worth of student loans for his daughter, Lisa. When she passed away, her parents were stuck with the debt, which had ballooned to nearly $200,000.

And now, these two parents, who took in three young grandchildren, are almost utterly without options.

If it were not for a George W. Bush-era law limiting financial protections for consumers, bankruptcy would be their last resort. But today, thanks to provisions in the 2005 Bankruptcy Bill, private student loans are one of the only forms of debt that cannot be discharged under any circumstances.

Expert: College is not worth it

If these were federal student loans with lower interest rates, the amount the Masons owe might not have ballooned quite so much. More importantly, they would have access to repayment plans or even some token financial assistance. But theirs are private loans.

And if conservatives had not waged a war to defund higher education to pay for tax breaks for their favored donors, perhaps the Masons and others like them might have avoided this tragedy altogether.

Instead, our young people are graduating off a cliff. America's global competitiveness is at risk. And our economy is struggling as families young and old neglect other purchases to pay down a combined more than $1 trillion in education debt.

Of course, this problem is solvable.

First of all, not allowing student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy was a blatant handout to the banking industry.

Democrats have been pushing to change this law for years. But even Wall Street's allies in the Republican Party should be able to see that this provision is putting lenders' profits over families' pain.

Second, the private student loan industry must be reformed.

Lenders use deceptive marketing, sky-high interest rates and hidden fees to make big bucks off of kids trying to get an education. If protecting young people from exploitation is not a sexy election-year issue, I do not know what is.

Third, this debt crisis demands more than half-measures.

Federal student loans cannot be refinanced. Private loans are often inescapable scams. But the source of the problem is cuts to public education, which cause tuition to soar even as our paychecks stay the same.

Here is a prediction: In 2016, some candidate is going to "go big" on education debt. He or she will call out the Republicans in Congress who have blocked commonsense fixes, then go further.

A crackdown on deceptive lenders and out-of-control collection agencies would be just the start. Little would boost our economy more than forgiving debt outright. And then there is the big one: We could make all public colleges free with what we are already spending on hodgepodge federal financial assistance.

The candidate who proposes all that will win. Politicians already know that education debt is a top voting issue for young people. They are about to find out that it matters to their parents, too.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
updated 3:00 PM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
John Sutter says the right is often stereotyped on climate change. But with 97% of climate scientists say humans are causing global warming, we all have to get together on this.
updated 8:57 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Andrew Liepman and Philip Mudd: When we declare that we will defeat ISIS, what do we exactly mean?
updated 4:40 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Thailand sex trafficking
Human trafficking is a multibillion dollar global industry. To beat it, we need to change mindsets, Cindy McCain says.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
The leaders of the GOP conferences say a Republican-led Senate could help solve America's problems.
updated 10:01 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Nicholas Syrett says Wesleyan University's decision to make fraternities admit women will help curb rape culture.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Thu September 25, 2014
Mike Downey says New Yorkers may be overdoing it, but baseball will really miss Derek Jeter
updated 8:32 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Quick: Which U.S. president has authorized wars of various kinds in seven Muslim countries?
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Women's issues should be considered front and center when assessing a society's path, says Zainab Salbi
updated 2:05 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
A catastrophe not making headlines like Ebola and ISIS: the astounding rate of child poverty in the world's richest country.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT