Media reports on student loan debt: distortions abound

by Ballard Spahr LLP
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Two recent articles highlight how student loan debt is often the subject of distorted reporting. 

An article from Hamilton Place Strategies observed that news stories often include anecdotal stories about families burdened by student debt. After examining about 100 articles with such stories over a three month period, the authors found that the new stories “are distinctly unrepresentative of the actual facts about student debt.”

According to the authors, while the news coverage reported an average student debt level of $85,400, government statistics for 2012 graduates indicated average debt of $29,400. They noted that this means the average debt level reported through anecdotes represents the 98th percentile of all who have debt. They commented that “this would be the statistical equivalent of surveying a selected group of American workers, finding an average income level of $360,000 and therefore reporting that the economy is doing well.” They also stated that the greatest concern with this skewed news coverage is its potential to impact aspiring students making decisions based on such coverage. More specifically, the authors fear potential students may “get the incorrect impression that a degree is not worth it and they take a pass on higher education all together.”

A second article posted on Slate.com takes aim at a blog post that commented on a recent report from Goldman Sachs analysts. After looking into whether student loans were keeping millennial from becoming homeowners, the analysts concluded that having student debt does not necessarily hurt housing. The Slate author observed that, despite this conclusion, the blog post carried the headline “How student debt crushes your chances of buying a home.”  

The Slate author aptly commented that “Something had been lost in translation.”  He noted that on the whole, the Goldman report found that graduating from college, with or without debt, makes it easier to buy a house than if someone only finished high school and that, in most cases, owing student loans did not meaningfully change the chances that someone would buy instead of rent. He also observed that while the Goldman report found that households between the ages of 25 and 34 with more than $50,000 in loans were 8 percentage points less likely to own a home than those with smaller debt burdens, it also found that based on the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances, only about 17 percent of all households with student loans have debt levels above $50,000. In addition, while the Goldman report found that former students who spent more than 10 percent of their monthly income servicing their debt were 22 percentage points less likely to be homeowners, such students represent a minority of borrowers (with only 9 percent of households with student debt devoting one-tenth or more of their income toward loans).  

The Slate author concluded with the observation that “on the whole, there are probably much more important reasons [than student loan debt]—including the slow job market, which has been especially brutal on the young—that are preventing millennials from buying houses.”

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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