The Price of Knowledge

Student loans are saddling the young with historic debt

The numbers aren’t precise, but they are stark: Many of this month’s college graduates will join the roughly 37 million Americans who carry debts from college, for a total sum that now tops $1 trillion. The situation in Minnesota isn’t particularly rosy. The state is fourth in the nation in indebtedness from student loans, with an average debt of $31,500 that has risen almost six percent from just 2011.

“Student debt impacts mostly the lower- and middle-income families,” says Larry Pogemiller, director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, the state agency charged with access to postsecondary education and financial aid. “On average, you get a postsecondary education and things work out—but that’s an average.”

Particularly since the onset of the Great Recession, dramatically rising tuitions for both public and private colleges have created a situation in which access to loans has replaced government-funded grants to plug the gaps for students to make it to graduation. Pogemiller does point to a Minnesota state college tuition freeze and an increase in postsecondary funding in the latest state budget as concrete positive signs.

“We might be turning the corner here, but that’s after the last decade,” he adds. “Tuition went up three times faster than the rate of inflation, or the rate of family income growth—that’s because the economy was so sluggish.”

Tuition and debt are linked inexorably, and those who exhort the young to work their way through school to stay debt free are out of touch with financial reality. “I was able to work part time and not take any debt,” Pogemiller, in his early 60s, says. “For the next age group it became harder. Now I think it’s almost impossible. That happened in a 30-year period of time.”

What happens in the next 30 will be a question of financial fairness and, hopefully, improvement—though the young graduates of today might well find it too late.