Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Don't call it 'student' debt

By Van Jones
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
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
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2334 GMT (0734 HKT)
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 2033 GMT (0433 HKT)
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0442 GMT (1242 HKT)
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2043 GMT (0443 HKT)
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 0858 GMT (1658 HKT)
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1342 GMT (2142 HKT)
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 1221 GMT (2021 HKT)
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1153 GMT (1953 HKT)
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2245 GMT (0645 HKT)
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 1700 GMT (0100 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 2301 GMT (0701 HKT)
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1744 GMT (0144 HKT)
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
October 18, 2014 -- Updated 1335 GMT (2135 HKT)
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0208 GMT (1008 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1125 GMT (1925 HKT)
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2004 GMT (0404 HKT)
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1307 GMT (2107 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2250 GMT (0650 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
October 11, 2014 -- Updated 1543 GMT (2343 HKT)
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT