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College Debt Crushing American Families

College tuition is going up. By a lot. This Bloomberg chart shows tuition fees increasing four times faster than the Consumer Price Index over the past three decades, and nearly twice as fast as medical expenses. The recent data is even worse, with costs increasing even faster than before since the mid-2000s.

Apologists for the current higher-ed system argue that this isn’t really a problem. The tuition increases aren’t as bad as they look because few students actually pay the full sticker price. Most get some form of financial aid, whether Pell Grants or low-interest loans.

A study by the Pew Research Center demolishes that argument, however, and shows clearly that educational debt burden is crushing America’s young. The study reports that one in five American households is now saddled with student debt, 15 percent more than in 2007. And the amount of debt households are carrying has also grown: the average debt burden is now more than $26,000.

Worst of all, the debt burden is heaviest for those who can least afford to carry it:

[W]hether computed as a share of household income or assets, the relative burden of student loan debt is greatest for households in the bottom fifth of the income spectrum, even though members of such households are less likely than those in other groups to attend college in the first place.

For the past fifty-years, U.S. policy has been animated by a noble goal: that a college education should be available to everybody regardless of ability to pay, and that the government should step in to make this happen. But now we’re beginning to see the results of these programs: Young people are struggling under a massive student debt burden at exactly the moment they should be maturing into independent adults. It’s not a pretty picture.

Costs in education, like costs in health care, are rising too fast. But the deeper problem is that the entire higher-ed system is fundamentally broken, and no amount of tinkering at the margins will fix it. Via Meadia doesn’t profess to know precisely what the solution will look like, but one thing is clear: We’re deep in a hole, and we need to stop digging.

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