The Growing Student Loan Debt Load

BY Elizabeth Shell  October 18, 2012 at 6:00 PM EDT

Photo by Dorann Weber via Getty Images.

The latest numbers on college debt are out this morning, and the picture — already rattled from reports earlier in the year that Americans owed a cool trillion for their higher education — got gloomier still: the average student who borrowed for college and graduated in 2011 owes $26,600, an increase of nearly 5 percent from those who tossed their mortarboards in 2010.

Two thirds of the seniors who graduated in 2011 took on some level of debt during their undergraduate years — about a fifth of which came from private loans. The amounts vary wildly, of course, depending on factors like a school’s tuition. The data comes via The Project on Student Debt, part of the Institute for College Access and Success. You can see their breakdown of state-by-state data in this interactive.

This comes at a time when default rates are up and new grads face high levels of unemployment. The Department of Education reports for the class of 2009, 13.4 percent of borrowers defaulted within three years of paying back their student loans.

But as education professor Judith Scott-Clayton of Columbia University’s Teacher’s College told us earlier this year, the overall dollar amounts don’t bother her — what’s important is college enrollment and graduation.

“It’s kind of like, ‘and so what?’ If you look at college enrollment rates, they’ve been going up pretty steadily over time. In the past couple of years, they have basically been at all-time high levels. I think that’s something to keep in mind,” she said. “As a general statement, college debt is still a good investment. Labor market returns to getting a college degree are also at historical highs. So historically, it’s as good, if not a better, debt than it used to be.”

We’ve done quite a bit of reporting on the subject this year, and the NewsHour will have more on this story on Thursday’s broadcast. Here’s a roundup of how student loan debt has affected Americans and the economy — and where to find help.

In preparation for our in-depth look at the state of college loans, we asked Americans to share how the $1 trillion student debt situation affects them. We received an overwhelming number of responses to our Public Insight Network request — here are some of their experiences:

The Faces of Student Loan Debt Screen shot 2012-10-18 at 2.19.03 PM.png

We wondered: Is it still possible to graduate without debt? In our calculator, you can use our assumptions or plug in your own income and college information to see when (or if) it would have been possible to do so:

Can You Still Work Your Way Through College?

Americans owe $1 trillion in student loan debt. How did that happen, and what’s the impact on the nation’s economy? Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports as part of his Making Sen$e of financial news series:

The State Of Student Loans: More Debt, More Defaults, More Problems

In his second report this week on student lending, economics correspondent Paul Solman examines the challenges that indebted college graduates face and the debate over whether to forgive some or all of their loan burden:

Student Loan Debt: To Pay or Not to Pay?

A live, running debt clock tracks total student loans in America — if you’re like one of the debt-saddled folks we’ve profiled, we urge you to check out the latest edition of the Income Based Repayment Plan:

Saddled with Student Debt? Where To Find Help Screen shot 2012-10-18 at 2.51.10 PM.png

David Graeber, author of “Debt: The First 5000 Years” has pushed for a proposal of mass repudiation of student debt. He argues that the interest rate incorporates the risk of default, so creditors should hardly be surprised when unforeseen circumstances like a jobless job market make repayment difficult to impossible:

The Heavy Load of Student Debt

A reader writes in questioning the severity of the student loan situation. Paul Solman responds:

What Student Loan ‘Crisis’?

Paul Solman answers a reader’s query about whether there is college loan forgiveness available for a tour of service with the Peace Corps:

Are Student Loans Forgiven for the Peace Corps or Disability?

Peace Corps Volunteer