The Wall Street Journal Finds the Most Inane Angle Yet on the Student-Debt Crisis

I spend a lot of time mulling over the problems that have been brought about by the rise of student debt -- the millions of financial lives shattered by needless defaults, the ruined credit scores stopping young people from buying homes. These are urgent issues. 

You know what I really couldn't care less about? Whether or not someone who spent $90,000 on an MBA gets to start a gluten-free cereal company -- which appears to be one of the chief concerns expressed in The Wall Street Journal's evidence-light piece on how student debt is making life difficult for entrepreneurs. It's called: "Student Loan Load Is Killing Startup Dreams." A better title would be: "Getting a Wildly Expensive Graduate Education Won't Be Good For Your Shoe-String Start-Up Business."

One of the structural problems with reporting about student debt is that virtually all the juiciest anecdotes that make for good storytelling involve graduates who bear little resemblance to the typical troubled borrower. Liberal arts grads with with six figures of debt? They make great copy, but they're also outliers. As a result, the catchiest articles tend to treat us to a parade of exceptional, and not altogether relevant, sad-sack cases. The Journal's piece is no exception. Here's the start:

The rising mountain of student debt, recently closing in on $1.2 trillion, is forcing some entrepreneurs to abandon startup dreams and others, including Christine Carney of Orono, Maine, to radically reshape their business plans.

Ms. Carney, 29 years old, and her husband, John, 31, started Thick & Thin Designs, making and selling food picks in the shapes of zombies, bikes and deer antlers after a brainstorming session while she was cooking dinner. The couple, both students at the University of Maine, where he is earning a master's degree in fine arts and she is earning her second undergraduate degree, in zoology, sell the picks for about $12 a dozen as decorative cupcake toppers.

But they chose not to purchase a laser cutter, because doing so would require them to take out a business loan--and together they have $140,000 in leftover student debt. Instead, they use a university-owned laser cutter, which limits the size of the acrylic sheets they can work with. Having the student-loan debt "is preventing me from being able to take a lot of chances or risks that are usually necessary when starting a business," Ms. Carney says.

While I, too, lament Christine and John's inability to crank out industrial-scale batches of Brooklyn-appropriate cupcake decorations, I think we can all agree that a couple who are simultaneously pursuing a second bachelor's degree in Zoology and an MFA are, at best, a cautionary tale about the perils of hipsterism, not a reflection of our economic age.

Eventually the piece tries to build its case with a bit of expert commentary. Innovation guru and Stanford University Law School Fellow Vivek Wadhwah says he mentors students "all the time," and that the "single largest inhibitor to entrepreneurship is the student loans." Shikhar Ghosh, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School, says that brand new MBAs "are willing to sleep on a couch for a year or two, but they can't do it with the burden of student loans." 

Presented by

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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