For serious student-loan reform, we’re going to have to look well beyond the Obama proposal. We need something that aligns incentives with reality. Here’s my proposal:
I think we should return to the days when student loans were dischargeable in bankruptcy, starting five years after graduation. This will allow graduates who are unable to pay to get out from under what is otherwise a potential lifetime of debt-slavery. If you buy a house to flip, and wind up losing your shirt, we let you go bankrupt, take a credit-rating hit, and scrub the debt away. Why should graduates be forbidden from doing the same? The five-year delay means that you can’t use immediate post-graduation poverty as an excuse (as some medical students used to do), but still provides an out.
But the real incentive-alignment part is this: Put the institutions who issued the degrees on the hook for the money they received. Making them eat the entire loan balance would probably bankrupt a lot of colleges (though that should tell us something about the problem right there), but sticking them with even a small fraction — say, 10% or 15% — would be enough to inspire a much greater degree of concern for how much debt students take on while in school, and for how likely they are to find gainful employment after graduation.