You are on page 1of 8

Running head: A BOOK REVIEW

Cortes

A Book Review:
The Student-Loan Mess
Purposes & Policies
Fall 2014

Running head: A BOOK REVIEW

Cortes

One of the biggest problems today is the growing amount of student debt. Students
want to be able to attend college, but they are not always in a position financially where they
are also able to cover the costs. In order to reach their goals, students are forced to take out a
ridiculous amount of money in loans in order to make the payments. With the rising costs of
attending universities, some of the students will graduate with student debt of roughly a
quarter-of-a-million dollars. Authors Joel and Eric Best, a father and son team, seek to tackle
this exact issue in their book, The Student Loan Mess: How Good Intentions Created a
Trillion Dollar Problem.
Rather than seeking to answer the question of how to fix this mess, the authors seek to
detail how it is that we got to this pointwith each chapter outlining the major messes.
This is where the reader finds the major pitfall of this work, that the answer to this question is
never quite answered throughout the book. The authors even reference the proverb, The road
to hell is often paved with good intentions, in order to explain to the reader that the main
focus of what they are about to read is an account of these good intentions rather than how to
get off of this road to hell. There is no doubt in my mind that this was a good read. In fact,
the text was quite thought provoking and enlightening for any individual interested in higher
education, especially students of higher education. However, for those of us faced with this
issue of debt, it might be more useful to have a way to solve the problem rather than just
understanding how the problem came to be.
In the first chapter, the authors give the reader a detailed account of how we got to the
modern state of the student debt issue. Starting as early the 1950s, the authors explain how the
first student assistance programs began around the time of the Cold War in order to help those
coming of age be able to compete with students around the world on an intellectual level.

Running head: A BOOK REVIEW

Cortes

Students at the time, especially those coming back after fighting in the war, could not afford
higher education. However, with the country hoping to compete against our peers, the
government sought to create programs that would allows students to afford to further their
education. At first, students were uncomfortable with the idea of borrowing these large sums
of money but the hesitance quickly diminished as more and more people began to take on
these ghastly debts. It was around the time of 1972, when Sallie Mae was officially
established, that there was a shared belief that student loans were absolutely necessary.
The second chapter details how policies around student loans began to form. The
concept of taking on these large loans was fairly new to students at the time, but so was the
concept of paying them back. It was fairly common to find that after completing their
education, students were unable to repay these loan amounts. It wasnt long before this issue
made it to the congressional level, where there was a demand for policy that would force
graduates to settle their debts. While things were changing on a governmental level, there
were changes occurring on the institutional level as well. The main change that was occurring
as that colleges realized that they could start raising the overall costs to attend their
institutions, because there was always going to be a way for the students to foot the bill. With
the availability of loans increasing, students were becoming less price-sensitive when it came
to higher education. Along with raising tuition costs, there was also an expansion in the forprofit industry because the cost alone was no longer a real threat to why students would or
wouldnt attend certain institutions. A vicious cycle was beginning: with more loans available
for students, colleges were raising their prices, and with larger overall costs being associated
with attending college, students were forced to take on more loans.

Running head: A BOOK REVIEW

Cortes

The third chapter is where the history behind the issue begins to blend in with the
challenges we are facing today. Around the 1990s, people were realizing just how much debt
students were accruing in order to be able to get their degrees and a conversation began to
form in order to bring awareness to this. The authors explained that individuals were starting
to realize that the cost of education was growing at a faster rate than the cost of living and that
the federal government was starting to limit their assistance programs. Regardless of the
awareness of the issue, student loans were becoming more of a political statement rather than
a real problem to be addressed. Student loans were becoming a topic to be debated between
the Democratic and Republican parties, but never with any real solution being found. The
authors explain that the parties still continue to debate the issue today, and for this reason the
debt amounts are only increasing rather than being resolved.
Chapter four seeks to specifically discuss the issue as related to one specific sector: the
for-profit industry. The authors claim that one of the biggest contributors to this
overwhelming amount of debt are the for-profit colleges. They explain that it is common for
these schools to enroll more individuals each year than there are active students in the entire
college. In other words, the institutions are far more concerned with allocating their resources
towards acquiring more students to charge than they are with helping their current students
succeed. The authors explain that regardless of the crooked intentions of these institutions, the
for-profit colleges are often protected by the United States Department of Education. They
speculate that the Department of Education acts as a guarantor for these institutions because
they would be faced with a very expensive situation if these colleges were to fail. One of the
perks of using federal loans is that, if for some reason, your institution were to shut down,
then the student is no longer responsible for paying back the loan balance. Therefore, if

Running head: A BOOK REVIEW

Cortes

students were to stop attending these for-profit institutions and they were to be forced to close
their doors, it is the federal government that would ultimately be faced with the ultimate
consequenceespecially when you take into account that loans for for-profit students account
for the largest overall portion of total student debt in the United States.
The fifth chapter is meant to discuss the future of the student loan crisis, but in reality
the authors really discuss the worth of attending colleges and universities in light of these
rising costs associated with attendance. However, the authors do mention that the government
is at a point where there is talk about examining the current state of our student loan policies.
Positive changes could be coming that would help to diminish the trillion-dollar student debt
in this country, and the authors outline possible outcomes from this political review. The
chapter also goes on to discuss the motivation and implications for the students, institutions,
and creditors associated with student loans and how they interact with one another in the
present day in such a way that causes the cost of education to increase.
The last chapter of this book is dedicated to outlining what the authors think should be
done in order to alleviate the issue. The authors explain that it is necessary to take a look at
the issue holistically rather than simply trying to tackle one specific problem within the larger
mess that we have gotten ourselves into. The authors state that they are not criticizing the loan
programs themselves; on the contrary, they believe that the cause is a noble one. It is a good
thing for the individuals, and society as a whole, that more people have access to higher
education. However, side effects from these intentions have risen that call for a better system
of evaluation. The authors state that it is now our responsibility to implement policies that will
reduce the cost of education rather than trying to keep up with the smaller messes that have

Running head: A BOOK REVIEW

Cortes

been created as a result of these skyrocketing costs and the need to take out loans in order to
pay them.
While The Student Loan Mess provides a thoughtful and detailed account of the issues of
student debt, there was a serious lacking in how to respond to this issue. I had a major concern
with how much time was focused on outlining the issue as compared to the recommendation
for what to do going forward. The feeling that it is the responsibility of governmental officials
to address the situation is mentioned in a number of the chapters, but exactly how to go about
this change or encourage these officials to consider this question is not represented well in the
broader context of the book. For example, early in the book, the authors mention that the
government had good intentions by starting these assistance programsnaming Nixons
signing off on the beginning of Sallie Maeso, therefore, they should not take on the
responsibility of controlling this growing problem. The question remains, what is the
government supposed to do in order to control this mess that the authors often outline.
Suggestions are never quite developed, simply encouraged. Joel and Eric Bests chapter on the
future of the student loan mess is the closest that the reader gets to how to solve the problem.
In this chapter, the authors explain how the problem can either get worse if nothing is done, or
better if we start to create policy around these growing student loans. It is definitely eyeopening to see how they imagine things will pan out, but again there are no solutions given
in fact, the authors mention that they cannot predict the future and cannot say what would
work. But what about those of us faced with these overwhelming debts? What are we
supposed to do? According to the authors, we should just wait for the government to consider
the issue and implement a policy. Rather than making me feel comfortable that there are

Running head: A BOOK REVIEW

Cortes

changes coming, this book has led me to believe that climbing student debt will remain
indefinitely.
Despite this shortcoming, this book is useful for those who are trying to break into the
field and understand financial aid through a historical lens. The framing of this book and the
use of chapters is well organized, telling the story of how we got to where we are today by
also explaining the major issues that we have run into in the past. This book is a practical read
for any person trying to understand student loans on a larger scale and the looming debt it has
caused. It is very informative of the American higher education system and how the United
States Government has gotten involved and shaped the number of students who have access to
furthering their education. High level academics might not have a need to read this book, but
students and researchers with a basic understanding of financial aid would benefit from
picking up this text.

Running head: A BOOK REVIEW

Cortes
References

Best, J., & Best, E.. The student loan mess: how good intentions created a trillion-dollar
problem. .