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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.

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