"I feel I kind of ruined my life by going to college," Jackie Krowen said. She first took out student loans at 19, to go to community college in Oregon. She borrowed more when she transferred to Portland State University, and even more to go to nursing school at the University of Rochester in New York. Now, more than $150,000 in debt, Krowen told Consumer Reports that she cannot buy a house and fears the specter of her non-dischargeable debt will follow her for the rest of her life.
I read Jackie’s story earlier this summer, and I thought about it constantly while reading the student debt report from the White House's Council of Economic Advisers, which was released today. There’s no doubt that Jackie’s situation is disturbing and sad. It’s not unique: There are many students for whom college is not that promised ticket to the middle class, but rather an albatross that punishes their early adulthood. They are tens of thousands of dollars in debt, in jobs paying half what they expected to earn after college. They cannot buy a home, start a business. They are even afraid to get married and have a kid.
But the student-debt crisis is subtler than the sum of $100,000-debt stories. In fact, the crisis is most acute among students whose debt burdens are much smaller—more like $5,000 or even zero, meaning they never enrolled in college in the first place. The media often pays closest attention to the biggest student debt numbers; it should pay closer attention to the small ones.