Student Debt

The Rising U.S. Burden

In terms of American exceptionalism, student loan debt stands out. No other country imposes the kind of costs on college and university students that the U.S. does, and nowhere else do loans cover so much of those costs. Experts think that the more than $1.3 trillion in outstanding education debt in the U.S. is more than that of the rest of the world combined. It’s a situation that educators, consumer advocates and members of both political parties all decry. Agreement on solutions is harder to find. In the meantime, young adults are delaying setting up their own households in the face of a mountain of debt. Recent studies also show a growing economic divergence between young Americans with and without student loans. There’s widespread agreement as to who is worst off: college dropouts. They’re stuck with debt but without the higher earnings a degree might have brought to help pay it off.

The Situation

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton would spend $350 billion over 10 years to reduce student debt and rein in the cost of college; her chief rival, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, would make all public colleges and universities tuition-free. President Barack Obama has called on Congress to make community colleges free, a proposal Republicans have rejected, along with efforts by Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat to let about 25 million holders of student loans refinance their debt at a lower interest rate. Perhaps the biggest change in the field came without Congressional action: the Obama administration has sharply expanded programs in which ex-students make payments calculated as a percentage of income. Republican presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio has also called for expanding income-based repayment programs. The income-based programs have a cost too: At least $39 billion over the next decade.

Source: Federal Reserve Bank of New York

The Background

When the U.S. federal student-loan program began in 1965, its goal was to give students reliable access to funds that would help them get through college by deferring some of its cost until they had an income. Most loans were paid off in a few years, while the benefit of the degree lasted a lifetime. As the cost of college raced ahead of inflation, the federal loan program morphed into something larger and different. Commercial banks also ramped up their higher-interest lending for those whose needs exceeded the caps on federal loans. The biggest growth in the program came in the past decade, as student debt rose an average of 14 percent a year, to $966 billion in 2012 from $364 billion in 2004, according to New York Fed data. After July 2010, the government cut out banks as middlemen in the federal loan business. Much of the savings was used to increase college grants, but some went to reduce the budget deficit. Today, the majority of loans, almost $1.2 trillion, are federally backed. That figure has doubled since 2007 and expected to double again in a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The Argument

Is the problem the loans or the cost of college the loans help students cover? A common criticism of proposals like Warren’s is that they don’t address the root problem of above-inflation tuition hikes. Making it cheaper to borrow, that argument goes, only makes it easier for schools to raise fees. Obama tried to address college affordability by proposing a ratings system for colleges that could potentially be tied to eligibility for federal aid, an idea that was dropped in the face of almost universal opposition from colleges. Both Republicans and Democrats have called for giving students information about how much they’ve borrowed each year instead of when they begin or leave a program. When students at Indiana University were told how much they would owe after graduation, undergraduate borrowing dropped by $31 million in one year. Scarcely debated in the U.S. is the path many other developed nations have chosen, of higher taxes to make public universities free or cheap. It’s an approach that harks back to the U.S. system of state universities. It’s also under pressure almost everywhere in an era of austerity.

The Reference Shelf

First published July 9, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Janet Lorin in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:
John O'Neil at