Imagine you’re a 17-year-old kid who has grown up with all the propaganda of middle-school guidance counselors telling you that you must go to college. At some point you come up with a handful of schools, probably with help from the glossy pamphlets stuffed every other day in your parents’ mailbox. You go for a campus visit and think it’s really cool that in the dining hall closest to your dorm you can eat pizza or nachos whenever you want. Maybe you really like the idea of floating away your Saturdays in a “leisure pool” shaped like the initials of a football team you like watching on TV. You’re definitely going to fill out that online promissory note in the financial aid office signing you up for five figures of debt; if your school is like mine, you’ll go beyond just the amount needed to pay for tuition and the remodeled eco-friendly dorms and take as much as possible because the university staff will have explained that you can take out an extra two grand or so for “living expenses,” i.e., beer.
You’re probably a moron, like most teenagers. But punishing morons should not be the organizing principle of a decent society. There are all sorts of things we generally don’t let teenagers do. We rarely give them mortgages or sell them luxury speedboats on credit. Why, then, should we allow impressionable young people to take on thousands of dollars in debt that many of them will, at best, struggle to repay?