Geraldine Damiani Brezler took out a $5,000 student loan in the late 1960s to study at the State University of New York. She became a nurse, got married, bought a house and repaid the debt in less than three years.
Today, her son, David, 38, owes about $85,000 in loans for a master’s degree in education atNew York University. He can’t find full-time work, lives with his parents in White Plains, New York, and has deferred paying his debt for three years.
The financial-aid odyssey of two generations of Brezlers tracks the history of U.S. student loans, which, like the home mortgage, helped define the American dream. In the early years, the loan program let ambitious teens take on a small debt that could pay off with a lifetime of higher earnings. Now, the $1 trillion in outstanding student debt has become a drag on the economic recovery, a flashpoint in the presidential election and a threat to the egalitarian ideals of U.S. higher education.
“It’s like waking up to a snarling wolf every morning,” said David Brezler, who spends his days searching job listings, following up by e-mail and phone and taking on short-term consulting jobs. “The idea of buying a house — it’s completely inconceivable.”
How did a once-modest federal program spiral out of control, weighing down low- and middle-income families like the Brezlers that it was designed to help?
The answer echoes both the health-care and mortgage crises. As college costs have soared faster than the rate of inflation over the past four decades — reaching $60,000 a year at the most expensive private schools — Republicans and Democrats alike postponed a reckoning. They encouraged borrowing and ignored surging tuition, leaving loans to balloon to the size of mortgages, shocking even the system’s own architects.
“No one ever conceived this was a way to create a debtor class of former students, the indentured student,” said Tom Wolanin, who worked on federal higher education policy for 30 years and was a deputy assistant education secretary in the Clinton administration