Explore Harvard's Nieman network Nieman Fellowships Nieman Lab Nieman Reports Nieman Storyboard

Educational attainment drops as student debt goes up

ASK THIS | September 21, 2006

On average, U.S. students must take on larger student debt loads than ever to go to college and in amounts greater than their counterparts internationally. How is Generation Debt dealing with or avoiding student loans?

By Pedro de la Torre III

Q. Does the prospect of large amounts of debt deter individuals from achieving higher levels of educational attainment, completing college or even going to college at all?

Q. Are relatively high American student debt loads affecting U.S. competitiveness with other countries?

Q. How do recent graduates deal with large student debt burdens? How does it affect major life decisions such getting married, buying a house, or going back to school for an advanced degree? Are recent graduates with high debt levels forgoing jobs in the public or non-profit sector?

Q. The Congressional Budget Office, the General Accounting Office, and the Office of Management and Budget have all found that switching from the government-guaranteed loan program to a direct loan program would save the government billions of dollars a year. Why does Congress continue to support a program that costs taxpayers significantly more, even as it makes one of the largest cuts ever, about $12 billion, from federal student aid?

The high levels of student debt that graduates face have diverse and far-reaching consequences. A recent study by the Public Interest Research Group, for example, shows that 23 percent of graduates from public colleges and 38 percent of private school graduates find that their student debt would unmanageable if they start their career as a teacher, even as experts predict a need for two million new teachers over the next decade. The numbers for graduates entering the field of social work are even worse.

More personal decisions are also affected. Many graduates, particularly those from low-income families, are delaying marriage, child-rearing, and moving out of their parent's home because of their debt burden.

In "Measuring Up 2006: The National Report Card on Higher Education," by the National Center on Public Policy and Higher Education, though U.S. adults 35-65 years old have the second highest educational attainment internationally, the educational attainment level of U.S. adults 25-34 has dropped behind to seventh place. The same report also notes that U.S. college completion rates rank in the bottom half of countries surveyed. (See pages 7 and 8 of the report.)

In all, $73 billion in student loans was disbursed to 10 million students last year.

Click here for more on student debt by Pedro de la Torre on the Center for American Progress Web site.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.