Since the early 1980s, student financial aid has quietly transformed from a system relying primarily on need-based grants to one dominated by loans. As grant programs fail to match tuition increases, more students are borrowing, and they are borrowing more. Fifty-six percent more of today’s students have federal subsidized loans than students 10 years ago. Graduates with loans borrowed an average of $19,300 in 2000, 60 percent more than they did in 1993 after adjusting for inflation.
If indebted students are the visible face of the debt crisis, the invisible faces are those who may have been lost to higher education altogether, even if they could have succeeded academically. The outcry over rising student debt may have overshadowed an equally pressing problem affecting students who do not borrow.Though the cost of not going to college is high—Americans without college degrees earn on average a million dollars less in their lifetimes than those with degrees—that cost can be less apparent to a young adult than the prospect of crushing debt.
Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, visit the Project on Student Debt Web site or visit the The Project on Student Debt on PewHealth.org.