We May Be Well-Fed, But Now’s No Time for a Diet

Rebekah Hwang/Guardian

The Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009, which passed in the House on Dec. 11, tightens loan regulations to ensure that students are only spending money on the necessities (you know, things like a 32-percent-more-expensive, substantially less competitive education). Though the bill is a noble attempt at locking down the loan market to avoid future classes, it creates a dangerously restrictive system for a demographic that’s barely weaned itself off mom and dad’s bank account.

The bill would create the Consumer Financial Protection Agency — a watchdog organization to regulate home mortgages, credit cards, interest rates and student loans. The agency has the power to cap the amount of money students can borrow and — most importantly — where we can borrow it from. The bill would empower us by providing beneficial information about financial options and the ability to take out federal loans, but then degrade us by placing a cap on private loans and taking the power to make these important financial decisions out of our hands

There’s more than enough bad news and ugly numbers to explain why this bill was proposed. Private loans — which can have interest rates up to 18 percent — were taken out by 23 percent of college students by 2006. On average, 62 percent of public university graduates face an average debt of $20,200 by the time they set out on the job hunt. The outlook for paying it back doesn’t look too hopeful either: the U.S. Department of Education reported an increase in the student loan default rate from 5.2 percent to 6.2 percent from 2007 to 2008.

Under this bill, all institutions which offer private loans are regulated by the CFPA. Officials must verify the enrollment status of any potential student borrowers to determine whether a student is eligible to take out federal loans. If a potential borrower is still eligible for a federal loan, private institutions are obligated to advise that choice instead. Though it might not be good for business, fat cats like private loan company Sallie Mae are obligated to inform potential students borrowers of all other options available.

If the 64 percent of students who take out private loans while still eligible for federal money can avoid doing so, all the better, but the CFPA also has a stiffer agenda: to make sure these lenders are only giving loans to students who will use the money strictly for educational purposes.

It’s no secret that we use loan money for more than just textbooks and tuition. Even more tempting than borrowing money for college is using it to pad our cushy lifestyle just a little bit longer. And that’s exactly what this bill tries to fight.

In a perfect world, loan money would be used for education, not a tricked MacBook Pro. Students would only take out private loans when they need to and not cripple their finances by borrowing more money than the cost of attendance.

But it’s important for politicians to remember that we’re more than machines whose whole existence is dedicated to mastering quantum mechanics over a 24-pack of ramen. College is a game of responsibility, and playing may require exceeding the basics, student debt be damned. So maybe we want to fund a trip around world before we graduate. Or, less thrilling, newfound financial hardship may arise.

And maybe we need the money because a MacBook Pro is the only way to follow our dream of becoming a hotshot filmmaker. Who’s to say that luxuries aren’t part of our education too? If we come up short, should we just give up?

Placing a cap on our income because we’re college students is a step back from California’s leading example. It forgets to take into account the varying circumstances in which we might need money, to invest in our career and it cripples our ability to manage our finances, debt and future.

Student loans are among the most ironclad of financial agreements, unable to be discharged even in the case of bankruptcy or death. We may not have the best track record while we’re in school, but the fact that we’re in a four-year university and the loans are impossible to discharge ensure that they will eventually be paid back. For every student who needs more money for a ritzy spring break trip, there’s another one who needs it for that essential laptop the parents won’t shell out for. H.R. 4173 tries to protect everyone, but instead marginalizes those who truly need the help.

We may be an expensive bunch, but expecting us to run the world without some financial autonomy will postpone our eventual success even further. We’re young, naive and we learn best through trial and error — God forbid we learn those lessons in the real world when a lot more is at stake.

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