06/30/2016

Consumer Reports tackles student debt and offers help

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"I feel I kind of ruined my life by going to college."

That's just one of the revealing reactions to student debt recently published in a mix of statistics, personal stories and tools to help individuals manage their student loans. The package comes from Consumer Reports, the magazine of the Consumers Union that typically advises readers on best buys for appliances, cars and sunscreens, and it brings the conversation about how we pay for higher education to a national audience.

Among the report's findings:

  • 45 percent of people with student debt say college was not worth the cost.
  • 47 percent say if they had it to do over again, they would accept less financial aid.
  • 44 percent cut back on daily expenses so they can pay their student loans.
  • More than half report having trouble making student loan payments at least once.

Jackie Krowen The material, available to nonsubscribers online, describes what student debt looks like on a national scale—42 million indebted students who owe $1.3 trillion in loans—as well as what it feels like to individuals. Compelling mini-profiles describe people like Jackie Krowen, the nurse quoted above and pictured, who owes $152,000 in student loans, and Saul Newton, a student so overwhelmed by loan payments that he dropped out of school and enlisted to fight in Afghanistan. "You shouldn't have to go to war to go to college," he says now.

There is also a frank assessment of how student debt became such a burdensome and ubiquitous part of the college experience. "A generation ago, the federal government opened its student loan bank to profit-making corporations," explains the report. "Private-equity companies and Wall Street banks seized on the flow of federal loan dollars, peddling loans students sometimes could not afford and then collecting fees from the government to hound students when they defaulted."

The report goes on to accuse collection agencies and banks of exploiting borrowers, and it holds lawmakers responsible as well. "Step by step, one law after another has been enacted by Congress to make student debt the worst kind of debt for Americans—and the best kind for banks and debt collectors," it says.

States are not spared either. Using Wisconsin as an example, the report shows how cutting state funds for higher education has not only decimated programs but has shifted the burden of funding from state governments to students, whose tuition has soared. As a result, students are taking out more loans. After Wisconsin slashed its education budget, 70 percent of its students graduate with debt, the third-highest percentage among all state in the United States.

As the consummate adviser, Consumer Reports offers individuals information that will help them save on their total college costs, decide whether or not to take out loans in the first place, and understand what kinds of loans might work for them, and it includes an interactive feature that shows how much money a borrower will end up paying in the end under various repayment plans. Those who qualify for public service forgiveness could pay less than the amount they originally borrowed, for example; at the other end of the spectrum, those who default on their loans would pay exponentially more.

[Virginia Myers]