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NY Times Goes to Extremes to Convince Readers of Student Loan Crisis

Front page story cites student $120,000 in debt; later admits only 3 percent of borrowers have $100K+ burden.

The New York Times continued and old media theme of complaining about the volume of student debt on May 13 with its front page story: “A Generation Hobbled by College Debt.”

Times writers Andrew Martin and Andrew W. Lehren began the 4,647-word essay about the problem of growing student debt began with the extreme example of one girl who is graduating $120,000 in debt.

Kelsey Griffith is just graduating from Ohio Northern University with that massive financial burden and, based on media coverage of the student loan crisis, her situation might not seem that unusual.

After all, the Times itself wrote “With more than $1 trillion in student loans outstanding in this country, crippling debt is no longer confined to dropouts from for-profit colleges or graduate students who owe on many years of education, some of the overextended debtors in years past. Now nearly everyone pursuing a bachelor’s degree is borrowing.”

But when you actually look at the data provided by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (data included after the jump to page 20 of the Times) it becomes clear that Griffith is part of a small minority. Only 3 percent of students have taken out more than $100,000 in debt.

“For all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300, with 10 percent owing more than $54,000 and 3 percent more than $100,000,” the Times wrote. So the average student debt is roughly the cost of a car, with potentially lower interest rates and longer payoff time.

The Times was not alone in using extreme debtors as the victims in its student loan stories. The Detroit Free Press recently wrote that “Students lament debt as loan battle gains steam in Congress.” They started things off with a similar student “victim,” saying, “Sean Doerr, like thousands of college graduates this spring, is trapped between a rock and a hard place. To get a good job, he knew he needed a college degree. But getting it cost the 22-year-old Detroiter dearly. He graduated Thursday from the College for Creative Studies in Detroit with more than $85,000 in debt.”

Then the Free Press attempted to make that seem a normal amount of college debt by claiming, “He's far from alone: Millions of Americans now owe more for student loans than credit cards. The loans can top $100,000 — even $200,000 — and often translate into payments of more than $1,000 a month.”

The Free Press reported that the average debt was over $25,000 using 2010 figures from a different source: the Project on Student Debt.

Some in Washington are clamoring to price fix the student loan market. “Obama has been hammering on the need to hold down college costs and for Congress to pass a law preventing federally backed loans from doubling their interest rates. Romney has echoed the same concerns, differing only on the federal government's role,” the Free Press wrote.

Some Occupy protesters want the government to just force taxpayers to pay off their student loans, or call for a free college education.

The media used to claim the problem with student loans were the banks, but they can’t argue that anymore since Obama took over the student loan industry in March 2010. Rarely do they examine how federal subsidies for college education  have distorted the education market and led to rapidly rising tuition. What hasn’t changed in reporting on student debt (and other forms of debt) is that the media generally side with borrowers rather than lenders.

The Business & Media Institute analyzed coverage of debt in 2006 and 2007 and found that 62 percent of network stories ignored the consumer’s responsibility for debt and just as many portrayed borrowers as victims. Lenders and related companies were blamed for borrowers’ debt troubles six times as often as borrowers.