George Leef of the Martin Center writes about circumstances contributing to today’s student debt problem.

No one spoke of college students being trapped in debt until rather recently. Prior to the advent of federal student aid programs, college wasn’t expensive, few Americans regarded it as important to their lives, and what borrowing they did for it was through private institutions that were careful not to lend where they perceived too much risk.

If in, say, 1971, someone had forecast that in fifty years, students would owe well over a trillion dollars in debt and many would face ruined lives because of their borrowing for college, he’d have been laughed at.

So, how did we get where we are today?

In The Debt Trap, Wall Street Journal writer Josh Mitchell gives a detailed history of America’s experiment in using higher education as a mechanism for social problem solving. He also provides many personal stories to underscore the hardships that have befallen students due to our obsession with getting college credentials. Those narratives make the book worth reading.

Unfortunately, Mitchell uncritically accepts the “conventional wisdom” about postsecondary education that propelled influential politicians to believe that they could improve upon the country’s traditional laissez-faire approach to college. That “wisdom” centered on the idea that by subsidizing a certain kind of formal education (that is offered in colleges), the workforce would be elevated to greater productivity, with the biggest gains accruing to poorer people.

Thus, the economy would gain, while poverty and inequality were lessened. Few doubted that it would work. The key was more education.

But, before the onset of federal intervention to make college “accessible” to everyone, Americans were not undereducated. Much of their skill and knowledge, however, was acquired outside of classrooms—especially through on the job training and apprenticeships. People found ways to optimize their education and only a small percentage concluded that they needed a college degree.