At an annual growth rate of 7.45 percent, tuition has vastly outstripped both the consumer price index and health care inflation (see chart). The growth in home prices during the housing bubble looks like a mere bump in the road by comparison. For many years, parents could look to increased home values to make them feel better about paying Junior’s tuition—the so-called “wealth effect,” in which increases in asset values make people more comfortable about spending. Or at least they could borrow tuition costs against the equity in their homes. But that equity is gone now, and tuition marches on.
So where does that leave us? Even students who major in programs shown to increase earnings, such as engineering, face limits to how much debt they can sanely amass. With costs exceeding $60,000 a year for many private schools, and out-of-state costs at many state schools exceeding $40,000 (and often closing in on $30,000 for in-state students), some people are graduating with debt loads of $100,000 or more. Sometimes much more.
That’s dangerous. And the problem is not a small one: According to the Ohio University economist Richard Vedder, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the number of student-loan debtors now actually equals the number of people with college degrees. How is this possible? “First, huge numbers of those borrowing money never graduate from college,” Vedder explains. “Second, many who borrow are not in baccalaureate degree programs. Third, people take forever to pay their loans back.”
Total student loan debt in America has passed the trillion-dollar mark. That’s more than total credit card debt and more than total auto loan debt. Students graduating with heavy burdens of student loan debt must choose (if they can) jobs that pay enough money to cover the payments, often limiting their career choices to an extent they didn’t foresee in their undergraduate days.
Even students who can earn enough to service their debts may find themselves constrained in other ways: It’s hard to get a mortgage, for example, when you’re already effectively paying one in the form of student loans. And unlike other debt, there’s no “fresh start” available, since student loans generally aren’t dischargeable under bankruptcy. The whole thing looks a bit like the debt slavery schemes used by company stores and sharecropping operators during the 19th century.