As the Wall Street protests grow and expand beyond New York, growing scrutiny of the nascent movement is warranted. What do these folks want? Alongside their ranting about the inequality of incomes, the alleged inordinate power of Wall Street and large corporations, the high level of unemployment, and the like, one policy goal ranks high with most protesters: the forgiveness of student-loan debt. In an informal survey of over 50 protesters in New York last Tuesday, blogger and equity research analyst David Maris found 93 percent of them advocated student-loan forgiveness. An online petition drive advocating student-loan forgiveness has gathered an impressive number of signatures (over 442,000). This is an issue that resonates with many Americans.

Economist Justin Wolfers recently opined that “this is the worst idea ever.” I think it is actually the second-worst idea ever — the worst was the creation of federally subsidized student loans in the first place. Under current law, when the feds (who have basically taken over the student-loan industry) make a loan, the size of the U.S. budget deficit rises and the government borrows additional funds, very often from foreign investors. We are borrowing from the Chinese to finance school attendance by a predominantly middle-class group of Americans.

But that is the tip of the iceberg: Though the ostensible objective of the loan program is to increase the proportion of adult Americans with college degrees, over 40 percent of those pursuing a bachelor’s degree fail to receive one within six years. And default is a growing problem with student loans.