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The Debt Trap

How Student Loans Became a National Crisis

From acclaimed Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Mitchell, the dramatic, untold story of student debt in America.

In 1982, a new executive at Sallie Mae took home the company’s financial documents to review. “You’ve got to be shitting me,” he later told the company’s CEO. “This place is a gold mine.”

Over the next four decades, the student loan industry that Sallie Mae and Congress created blew up into a crisis that would submerge a generation of Americans into $1.5 trillion in student debt. In The Debt Trap, Wall Street Journal reporter Josh Mitchell tells the untold story of the scandals, scams, predatory actors, and government malpractice that have created the behemoth that one of its original architects called a “monster.”

The tale begins in 1957 with the launch of Sputnik. Afraid that America was falling behind the Soviets in science education, Congress created the first major federal student loan program to enroll more students in college. What followed were a series of well-intentioned government actions that created a cycle of reckless lending and runaway tuition. Easy access to loans allowed colleges to raise tuition to unheard of levels, which in turn led Congress to increase loan limits and interest rates and expand who could borrow. This spiral continued as the private banks that fronted the money made huge profits on interest. “Nobody was pure in this business,” one former college president said.

As he charts the gripping seventy-year history of student debt in America, Mitchell never loses sight of the countless student victims ensnared by an exploitive system that depends on their debt. Mitchell also draws alarming parallels to the housing crisis in the late 2000s, showing the catastrophic consequences student debt has had on families and the nation’s future. Mitchell’s character-driven narrative is required reading for anyone wanting to understand the central economic issue of our day.

Josh Mitchell is a reporter in the Washington bureau of The Wall Street Journal, writing about the economy and higher education. In 2016, the Education Writers Association named him the nation’s top education beat reporter among large publications, calling his reporting “unique, comprehensive, illuminating, and a must-read for policy makers, prospective and current college students, and their parents.” He lives and works in Washington, DC.