For this month’s Color of Money Book club pick, I’m selecting a horror story.
It’s a special report in the August issue of Consumer Reports. I know this isn’t a traditional pick for a book club, but the magazine cover captivated me with this large headline: “I KIND OF RUINED MY LIFE BY GOING TO COLLEGE.”
There’s been a lot of debate about whether college is truly worth it. One recent study made the strong case that it is.
“The economy has added 11.6 million jobs since the recession bottomed out — 11.5 million, or 99 percent of them, have gone to workers with at least some college education,” concluded the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.
But here’s the thing. Those of us concerned about the nation’s growing student loan debt — now totaling $1.3 trillion — aren’t arguing that college isn’t worth it. We’re just cautioning that the steep cost many are paying isn’t.
“Today, a four-year education at a state school — including tuition, fees, and room and board — costs an average of $78,000; at a private university it’s more than double that,” writes Donna Rosato, Consumer Reports’ senior editor for money.
According to the magazine, borrowers in the Class of 2016 left college with an average debt of $37,000. But that figure doesn’t tell the whole story. Many people have so much more. Still others have the debt and no degree. Or they’ve landed jobs where their earnings are inadequate to keep up with their monthly student loan payments.
The cover story, “Lives on Hold,” was written as part of a partnership with “Reveal,” a radio show and podcast co-produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting. They’ve put together a compelling tale of what’s become a bona fide crisis in our nation.
There are two other parts of the magazine’s special report that I highly recommend — “Having the College Money Talk: 10 Key Questions Every Family Should Discuss” and an abbreviated version of an investigation by “Reveal” titled “Who Got Rich Off the Student Debt Crisis.”
Let’s start with who got rich.
“A generation ago, Congress privatized a student loan program intended to give more Americans access to higher education,” authors James B. Steele and Lance Williams write. “In its place, lawmakers created another profit center for Wall Street and a system of college finance that has fed the nation’s cycle of inequality. Step by step, Congress has enacted one law after another to make student debt the worst kind of debt for Americans — and the best kind for banks and debt collectors. Today, just about everyone involved in the student loan industry makes money off students — the banks, private investors, even the federal government.”
We are introduced to several indiv iduals struggling with student loan debt. Jackie Krowen, 32, of Portland, Ore., is the source of the quote on the magazine cover. She owes $152,000. Her monthly payment is $1,200. She’s working as a nurse earning $62,000.
“Looking back,” the article reads, “Krowen realizes she had no idea what she was doing when she took out her loans. Her parents, she says, encouraged her to borrow because the interest rate was low. Like many young borrowers, she didn’t know how much interest could accrue.”
“I can’t plan for an actual future,” Krowen said. And she’s not the only worried debtor profiled in this terrifying tale. All their stories have this in common: They didn’t really understand what they were getting into.
Sure, you might argue that Krowen and the others bear most of the responsibility for digging themselves deep into debt. But they were teenagers or young adults being sold a promise of riches to come.
That leads me to the piece on the college money talk, which was written by Rosato, and to a survey by the magazine of 1,500 student loan borrowers, 37 percent of whom said the debt keeps them from being able to save for retirement. Forty-five percent of borrowers said knowing what they know now, their college experience wasn’t worth the cost.
Consumer Reports has put together some key questions and recommendations to families so that students get degrees but without the regret.
My hope is that you read and view all of the content — the magazine spread and the additional online material, which includes some heart-wrenching videos, at consumerreports.org/student-loan-debt-crisis — and get scared straight.
I’ll be hosting a chat about this month’s selection at noon Eastern on July 28 at washingtonpost.com/discussions. Rosato from Consumer Reports will be my guest and will answer any questions about the student loan crisis.
Write Singletary at The Washington Post, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Comments may be used in a future column, with the writer’s name, unless otherwise requested. To read more, go to wapo.st/michelle-singletary.