$1.5 trillion of student loan debt has transformed the American dream

Protesting against high student loan burdens at the annual July 4th parade at Ashland, Oregon.
Protesting against high student loan burdens at the annual July 4th parade at Ashland, Oregon.
Image: Reuters/Randall Mikkelsen
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Forget the white picket fence. Forget the house and family. Forget taking a job for love rather than money. Retirement? Keep dreaming.

A decade after the great recession, the new American dream is strikingly minimalist. Today, many Americans in their 20s, 30s, and 40s consider themselves lucky so long as they have a job that allows them to make their student loan payments. For the 44 million who bet on themselves, borrowed money to study, and currently owe on those loans, their decisions and ambitions are shaped by the burden of early debt.

The burgeoning student loan crisis in the US 

The value of an education can’t be quantified. Perhaps it’s priceless. But the cost of going to school certainly can be calculated, and the figures are staggering.

A four-year stint at a private American university today—for example Harvard, Stanford, or Yale—costs more than a quarter million dollars, including tuition, lodging, and books. Public universities may be more affordable, but the outlay for an education still requires funding assistance. University of California schools, for example, costs about $12,500 a year just for tuition and fees for a full-time state resident. Assuming students stay close to home and commute, that still amounts to $50,000 for an undergraduate degree.

Given the prohibitive pricing, many students have to borrow this money. Those who complete a bachelor’s degree owe, on average nationally, $30,500, according to data from the Department of Education. People who go on to graduate school can owe much more, and of course, each student’s debt burden depends on which institution they attend, their parents’ finances, and whether families can take on debt in their stead. Nationwide, borrowers collectively owe $1.5 trillion in student-loan debt.

It’s a sum so astronomical that education researchers characterize this as a time of crisis—one that will only worsen without governmental and institutional intervention. In January of this year, Judith Scott-Clayton of Columbia University’s Teachers College wrote in a Brookings Institute report that “the looming student loan default rise is worse than we thought.” Based on the most recent trends, it seems likely that by 2023, about 40% of borrowers may default on their student loans, amounting to about $560 billion in unpaid debt.

At the same time, we’re only just beginning to understand the lasting effects of student debt. Because the typical life of a student loan is 10 years, conventional wisdom has long held that education debt isn’t really a burden for people in their mid-30s and beyond. Not anymore.

Part of the reason why student-loan debt stretches on can be traced to forbearances and deferments. When graduates go through a period of unemployment, or go back to school, they can hold off paying their loans. That can extend repayment periods by years, as interest accrues dramatically on large sums.

Another contributing factor: Universities hoping to secure federal student aid funds must demonstrate that students can repay their debt and will not default within the first three years after graduation. As a result, they may encourage students to defer or forbear payment to protect institutional interests, without necessarily warning young people of the severe financial consequences this may lead to. The Government Accountability Office (pdf) in 2017 called for greater scrutiny of schools, writing:

GAO identified examples when forbearance was encouraged over other potentially more beneficial options for helping borrowers avoid default, such as repayment plans that base monthly payments on income…GAO found [school] consultants provided inaccurate or incomplete information to borrowers about their repayment options in some instances. A typical borrower with $30,000 in loans who spends the first 3 years of repayment in forbearance would pay an additional $6,742 in interest, a 17% increase.

GAO’s analysis of Department of Education data found that 68% of borrowers who began repaying their loans in 2013 had loans in forbearance for some portion of the first three years, and 20% of these were in forbearance for 18 months or more. Those in long-term forbearance defaulted more often in the fourth year of repayment, once schools stopped being accountable for defaults. So the forbearances just delayed defaults, rather than preventing them.

Other students may have trouble paying down student loans if, after tapping out federal funds, they borrow from private lenders, which often have higher interest rates. Kaitlyn Cawley explains in Bustle that she finished graduate school with $95,000 in student loan debt, including a $24,000 variable-rate loan that started at 9.4% interest and now stands at 11%, brokered by the US private lender Sallie Mae. She makes her loan payments, but she’s not making a dent in her debt. “Yes, I’ve paid more than $18,000 to my original $24,000 student loan,” she writes, “and, yes, only $171 worth of my back-breaking monthly payments…even manage to skim the original amount.”

For all these reasons, just one decade to pay down school debt now seems pretty short, based on data from the US Department of Education (pdf). Just 38% of borrowers who’d begun their undergraduate educations in the 1995-1996 academic year had fully paid off their student debt 20 years later; and only 20% of borrowers who’d begun paying back their debt in the 2003-2004 school year had successfully paid of their loans after 12 years (table 5, page 19). Not only that, defaults can happen years after graduation—not only in the first few post-college years when graduates are looking for work or earning relatively low wages because of inexperience.

How student loans affect adult decisions 

Borrowing for education means deferring other major purchases, like a home. Indeed, a 2017 Federal Reserve study (pdf) reported that greater student loan debt causes people to delay decisions about marriage and children. Student debt lowers the probability of enrollment in a graduate or professional degree program and reduces borrowers’ willingness to work in low-paid public interest jobs. It increases the likelihood of living with parents and delays or reduces the chances of owning a home.

Basically, borrowing a lot of money for school influences almost every major decision people make in adulthood—in part because the debt impacts credit ratings and makes young borrowers unattractive to lenders, and in part because borrowers are worried about, or at least mindful of, their financial obligations. Moreover, the Federal Reserve study notes that student-loan borrowers face multiple obstacles. Beyond being burdened by outstanding credit, they have trouble saving money for a down payment on a home, not to mention satisfying a lender’s debt-to-income ratio.

All this is bad news not just for individuals, but for the US economy as a whole. Last year, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York published a report that examined the link between rising tuition, swelling education debt, and diminished homeownership among millennials. Researchers found that 11-35% of the decrease in homeownership among 28-30 year olds between the years 2007 and 2015 was attributable to tuition hikes and greater debt. “The results suggest that states that increase college costs for current student cohorts can expect to see…weaker spending and wealth accumulation among young consumers in the years to come,” they write.

Meanwhile, at a congressional hearing in March, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell warned policymakers that rising default rates will impact the national economy, apart from influencing the economic lives of individuals. “As this goes on and as student loans continue to grow and become larger and larger, then it absolutely could hold back growth,” he testified. Powell suggested that policymakers consider allowing student loan debt to be discharged in bankruptcy, like credit card debt, say. But for now, no such option exists.

Powell’s not entirely sour on education debt. He believes “investing in yourself” is smart. However, the investment, like any other, comes with risks.

Free tuition for all?

The burgeoning student-debt crisis has become increasingly difficult to ignore. Now some political and educational institutions in the US are making efforts to address it.

At Harvard University, for example, students whose parents make less than $65,000 annually now qualify for free tuition. Princeton University offers free tuition, room and board for students whose families make less than $54,000, and free tuition for families earning less than $120,000. Brown University waives tuition, room and board for families making less than $60,000, as does Columbia University. Last year, New York governor Andrew Cuomo introduced the nation’s first program to provide tuition-free college at the state’s public colleges and universities for students from families making up to $125,000 a year.

And laudably, New York University Medical School just announced that its $55,000 annual tuition will be waived for all new and current students in the interest of advancing the medical profession, while challenging other schools to follow suit. “This decision recognizes a moral imperative that must be addressed, as institutions place an increasing debt burden on young people who aspire to become physicians,” dean Robert Grossman said in a statement.

Oddly the announcement was met with derision by Jordan Weissmann at Slate. “While it’s hard to fault a school for offering its students a free education, this dramatic gesture is, at best, a well-intentioned waste—an expensive, unnecessary subsidy for elite medical grads who already stand to make a killing one day as anesthesiologists and orthopedic surgeons,” he writes.

But Weissmann fails to recognize what the school is trying to do. By making tuition free, NYU is making it easier for a range of students to seriously consider medical school. It’s also liberating those who seek to join the profession to consider what they might contribute to society—how they can become the kinds of doctors who put medicine first, not earnings, enabling them to take public interest and nonprofit work and to serve in rural communities. And it’s worth noting that the sky-high cost of medical school takes a toll even on doctors who theoretically earn a good living. Farzon A. Nahvi, an emergency medicine physician, recently noted in the New York Times, five years after graduating from medical school, “I cannot afford to buy a house, still ride my bicycle to work and continue to skimp on meals in order to cover more than $3,000 in monthly loan payments.”

The idea that students can easily manage astronomical debt—and that there’s always a ton of money to be made— is retrograde. Certainly the 44 million borrowers with outstanding debt understand what NYU is trying to do. Hopefully, more institutions will soon follow its lead.

This post originally stated that Sallie Mae was a government lender. It has been updated to note that Sallie Mae is a private lender.