College may be an investment in the future. But it’s a pricey one – and not without risk. The vast majority (94%) of students who earn a bachelor’s degree borrow money (including loans from the federal government, private lenders, and relatives) to pay for their education, and for all borrowers, the average debt in 2011 was $23,300.
A long, thorough article in the New York Times explores some of the more extreme reaches of student debt, telling the stories of students who took on debt that they will be paying off for decades. Add to that a shaky job market, where only half of recent college graduates currently hold a full-time job, and this debt could seriously impede an entire generation’s economic future. One student, who dropped out of school with $70,000 in student loans, is working three jobs to make her monthly payments and says she has no intention of finishing school. “For me to finish it would mean borrowing more money,” she said. “It makes me puke to think about borrowing more money.”
The Obama administration recently targeted student debt as a priority, which is understandable given that approximately two-thirds (66%) of the general population also say the government should do more to help students pay for college and pay off student loan debt.
But it’s also important to remember that levels of debt vary widely and horror stories like the one cited in the Times are not the norm. For instance, only 3% of students owe more than $100,000. The average debt load, at $23,000, is dramatically different from these extreme cases, although it is still substantial, particularly since recent college grads’ earning potential is fairly low.
As the New York Times notes, much of the difference has to do with the type of college that students attend. In the 2012 Millennial Values Survey, nearly half (48%) of younger Millennials (age 18-24) who attended or are currently attending a community college reported that they did not borrow money to finance their undergraduate college education, compared to 21% of younger Millennials who attended or are currently attending a private college or university, 24% of younger Millennials who attended or are currently attending a religious college or university, and one-third (33%) of younger Millennials who attended or are currently attending a public college or university.
By contrast, nearly one-quarter (23%) of younger Millennials who attended or are currently attending a private college or university say they will graduate with more than $50,000 in debt, compared to 13% of younger Millennials who attended or are currently attending a religious college or university, 6% of younger Millennials who attended or are currently attending a public college or university, and only 1% of younger Millennials who attended or are currently attending a community college.
There are a variety of factors at play here, from tuition hikes and state budget cuts that affect public state universities, to job losses among families that make borrowing unavoidable. It’s also worth noting that while community college does not require as significant a financial contribution from students, many graduates of community colleges go on to pursue degrees at 4-year colleges and universities, while those who do not tend to have lower earning potential. But these numbers show that this issue will continue to be one with which politicians, university officials, students and parents are forced to grapple.