Courtney Such of Real Clear Policy recently interviewed Ben Miller from the Center for American Progress.

He doesn’t think student loan debt is a very big problem.

Student Loan Debt: It’s Not All Bad

As the national conversation about student debt continues, Ben Miller, senior director for post-secondary education at the Center for American Progress, has released a paper criticizing the lack of focus on whether the students who accumulate debt are getting degrees.

We took a few minutes to discuss his findings. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do you think people overlook graduation rates when they talk about student debt?

I think high debt numbers catch people’s attention, so when you set out to write a news story, talking about $100,000 in debt immediately grabs a reader in a way that saying people with $6,000 in debt are really struggling does not. We like to go for the big, scary numbers, even if those aren’t really representative of where the true numbers lie.

If you had to summarize your findings in just a few sentences, how would you do so?

The big idea is this: The purpose of student debt is to help someone afford a degree or another credential, so if you look at how much debt it costs per college graduate, the student-loan debt is not nearly as scary as if you just look at the total amount of borrowing out there. It suggests that places that have higher debt levels but also produce a lot of college graduates are probably much better off than places where they may have less debt, but fewer people completing college.

People who borrow and complete college are much better off than those who borrow and drop out. The best available data we have on this is from people who started college in 2003 and were in default by 2009 — over 60 percent of them had dropped out of college. Another 20-some-odd percent had only earned a certificate. So what you see there is that the biggest problems with student debt are occurring among people who borrowed but didn’t get the credential they were seeking.