One third of millennials say they would not have gone to college at all if they had known the debt burden they were going to be left with.
That's one of the big takeaways hit by Bloomberg today, reporting on a survey conducted by TNS "on behalf of" Citizens Bank (I love that "on behalf of," like TNS just felt like doing the bank a big ole favor).
The rest of the picture isn't any better. The average student debt for the group of 18 to 35 year olds is $41,286.40 (a spectacularly specific number). This matches up with numbers from other reports which also say that A) about two-thirds of millennials are carrying that kind of debt and B) it is messing up their lives.
TNS reports that millennials don't all have a firm grasp of exactly what's happening with their debt. 15% of those polled weren't sure exactly what their balance was, and over a third didn't know their interest rate. Almost half don't understand the intricacies of private vs. federal loans.
I can report that all of this is right in line with my personal store of anecdotal data. I gave my millennial children the gift of paying for their college educations, and by the time my first child was halfway through, I had eaten through all my savings and commenced with the loan out-taking. My second child has a degree that is entire a product of Parent Plus loans. I've been at this game for a while (and it will be a while before I'm done).
My loans have been pretty straightforward, relatively speaking, but these reports often forget that for many millennials, the rules on much of this changed along the way. While my son was in school, for instance, the rules shifted and we went from dealing with a well-trained by anonymous functionary of a financial institution to dealing with a shell-shocked employee of the school's financial aid office. At numerous points my loans were passed off to a new institution, which resulted in changes in amounts and loan numbers (at one point, I confess, I discovered that I had been double paying on one loan and was months behind on another).
But mostly, I look at the amounts I had to borrow, and I cannot begin to imagine how my children-- and other people like them-- could possibly have had a live at this point if they were paying these loans on their own. They struggled through most of their twenties in minimum wage jobs; one happened to be in love with and finally married to a young man with a well-paying gig, but the other periodically had to borrow from the Bank of Dad just to make ends meet. I remain painfully, acutely aware and angry at the many ways that corporations like banks and utilities and the various phone companies find ways to gouge money out of people are doing their best but can barely manage. What kind of conscience-deprived business plan involves the grown-up equivalent of knocking down the little kids and taking their lunch money?
Some folks offer their idea of a practical solution-- only go to college for degrees that will immediately result in lucrative jobs. This is bad for the humans getting the degrees, and bad for a society that depends on a full range of talents, skills, and jobs to make civilization possible, but pays very poorly for many of those jobs. And if you don't buy my larger philosophical objections, consider the practical one-- if every student at Bodacious University drops their old major and switches to the two that lead to well-paying insta-jobs, that job market will be flooded, and those jobs will no longer pay well.
I don't think I know any millennials who regret going to college, but what does it say for our grand and glorious dreams of national college attainment that so many debt-ridden college grads (and drop outs) are out there saying, "Don't go, kid. It's not worth it."
And why can we move heaven and earth and try to rewrite the entire K-12 education system in pursuit of academic college readiness for all, but we can't lift a finger to promote the goal of financial college readiness for all. Why have we focused so much fierce attention on making sure that Chris can pass college algebra, but so little attention on whether or not Chris can afford to pay for it.
I have no doubt that this is neither an easy problem to diagnose or to solve, but this survey drives home once again that we have an entire generation of Americans for whom college costs are the biggest problem in their lives. They can't afford to put money into the economy. They postpone buying homes and having children. They struggle with the stress and strain of living under the shadow of huge debt. How can the fact that some are required to take remedial college courses be a huge issue that must be screamed regularly from the rooftops, but the house of debt that has been dropped on them (amidst promises that college would be their passport to te middle class) merit barely a mention?
How can we pretend to talk about making students college and career ready and not talk about the crushing cost of college?