In the months leading up to high school graduation, I had little idea where I wanted to go next and was even less sure what I wanted to do. Really, I could have simply thrown a dart at a map, packed up and hit the open road. There was a little more to it than that, but not much. Eventually, I ended up at a tiny junior college in a tiny Wyoming town studying photography.
Today, many students begin narrowing down what college or university they would like to attend as juniors in high school. They work with SAT and ACT tutors to improve their scores. Some pay college admission coaches to help them navigate the application process.
My freshman year, I simply wasn’t ready or responsible enough for the rigors of higher education. I fell behind in classes, earned poor grades and, finally, was given an ultimatum by my parents to either turn things around or leave school. It was a lost year, but the actual cost of tuition was small. I found my groove, graduated from Northwest College before transferring and graduating from the University of Montana.
Today, with rising tuition costs, most students don’t have the luxury of experiencing a “lost” year. Student loan debt has exploded over the last two decades and, according to Nitro, a research group that helps students plan their education financing, it now stands at an estimated $1.53 trillion.
Some other sobering statistics:
- 44.7 million Americans have student loan debt
- The average loan amount is more than $37,000
- The average monthly loan payment after graduation is $393
The cost of school is the main culprit. Even when accounting for inflation, it has more than doubled since 1971. During that time, tuition, room and board at public universities has risen from $8,730 to $21,370 and at private universities from $18,140 to $48,510.
Regardless, most incoming college freshmen who know what degree to pursue, score solid grades and graduate on time will still have a pile of debt waiting for them when they leave school. Taking longer to earn a degree straps students with even more debt. The problem is most people, like me, won’t graduate in four years.
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, just “41 percent of first-time, full-time undergraduates seeking a bachelor’s degree received them within four years.” Fifty-six percent received them within five years. Many others leave school with no degree at all.
To be sure, earning a diploma is still worth it. But the pressure on our high schoolers to be certain of their chosen field and their chosen college is higher than ever. As tuition continues to rise, colleges and universities should feel equal pressure to improve the U.S. college dropout rate, which is among the highest in the world.
Student debt now far surpasses auto loans and credit cards. Only the country’s home mortgages are larger in scope. Something has to give.