Bad advice? NYT op-ed writer tells students not to repay their loans

Author argues college should be free

Lee Siegel says he has been "crucified" by the media after telling students not to pay back their student loans.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Siegel explains that upon graduating college he had a clear choice: give up the career that had become his passion (writing) or take a boring job that paid well enough to cover his student loans.

Siegel says he chose the career and defaulted on his student loans. And he encourages other students to do the same.

The current loan system is "legal, but not moral," argues Siegel. It gives people from elite backgrounds much more freedom to choose their college and their career—without having to worry whether they will be able to pay off their debts.

He offers tips for surviving default, including securing long-term housing and marrying someone with good credit.

In a Kantian vein, Siegel imagines what would happen if everyone did as he did. While the "entire structure of American higher education would change," Siegel argues it would change for the better of the public. The government would be forced to stop enforcing student loans, he imagines, and colleges nationwide would be "shamed" for their tuition rates.

Fact-checking the narrative about exploding tuition costs

He concludes by encouraging other young people with student debt to consider his example.

The article prompted a slew of critical responses in national media outlets—and the New York Times itself. Slate writer Jordan Weissman equates the article with "gross journalistic malpractice" and "criminally negligent financial advice."

Weissman points out that student loan defaulters usually face wage garnishing—up to 15% of their paychecks can be withheld by the Department of Education. But the department also offers an income-based repayment plan where payments are capped at only 10% of a borrower's income.

In a follow-up interview with Talk Radio 1210 WPHT, Siegel says he has faced undue criticism.

He accuses journalists "from elite wealthy backgrounds" of not caring about the "plight of the lower middle class."

Siegel says he resents the suggestion that he should have attended a more affordable school, calling it undemocratic.

College should be free, as it is in Germany, Norway, and other countries around the world, argues Siegel (Siegel, New York Times, 6/6; Weissman, Slate, 6/8; Jackson, Business Insider, 6/15).

Is Lee Siegel a hero or a villain? Tweet us at @eab_daily and tell us your thoughts.

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