Student Loans: The Growing National Crisis No One Talks About

Student loan debt has become an increasingly pressing issue for college students and recent graduates across the United States. As college tuition costs have risen dramatically over the past few decades, more and more students have turned to loans to finance their education. According to data from the Federal Reserve, outstanding student loan debt in America topped $1.5 trillion in 2018, more than doubling since 2009. This debt burden falls heavily on the shoulders of young people trying to launch their careers and financial lives. National collegiate student loans enable millions of students to pursue higher education every year, but also saddle many with years or even decades of loan payments.


National collegiate student loan programs have their origins in the mid-20th century as a way to make college more accessible and affordable. In the years following World War II, there was a major expansion of higher education in the United States driven by the GI Bill and broader societal changes. However, paying for college remained a challenge for many students and families.

In response, the federal government created the National Defense Education Act in 1958, which for the first time provided low-interest federal loans to students. This laid the groundwork for the Higher Education Act of 1965, which established the Guaranteed Student Loan program. This program allowed students to borrow from private lenders while the federal government guaranteed the loans against default. Over time, the guaranteed loan program evolved into the current federal student loan system that includes subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford loans.

While federal student loans have dominated the landscape, there are also long-standing private student loan programs. These were originally offered by individual colleges and non-profit lenders to supplement federal loans. Over time, private student loans have grown into a multi-billion dollar market, with private banks and financial companies offering loans directly to student borrowers or in partnership with colleges. Private loans lack some of the protections and benefits of federal loans, but help meet student demand for funding.

The emergence of broad national collegiate student loan programs has had a major influence in making college accessible and fueling growth in higher education. At the same time, increasing reliance on student loans has also been a source of concern given the impacts of debt on students and families. Managing national student loan programs to balance expanding opportunity while minimizing risk and hardship remains an ongoing policy challenge.

Current Landscape

The current national collegiate student loan landscape is dominated by federal student loan programs. The largest program is the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program, which issues Stafford, PLUS, and consolidation loans directly from the federal government. Other major programs include the Federal Perkins Loan Program, which provides low-interest loans administered by colleges, and the Federal Family Education Loan Program, which previously offered Stafford and PLUS loans issued by private lenders.

Some key aspects of the current national student loan environment include:

  • Reliance on federal loans: Over 90% of student loans are federal, while private student loans make up under 10% of the market.

  • Rising loan balances: The total outstanding federal student loan balance now exceeds $1.5 trillion and continues to grow each year.

  • High enrollment in income-driven repayment plans: Over 50% of federal direct loan borrowers are enrolled in income-driven repayment plans like Income-Based Repayment and Pay As You Earn.

  • Increased Parent PLUS borrowing: Parent PLUS loans are becoming an increasingly common way for parents to help fund their child’s education.

  • Persistent delinquencies: Around 11% of student loan borrowers are at least 90 days delinquent on their loans. Delinquencies remain an ongoing issue.

The federal student loan system aims to make college more accessible and affordable, but also receives criticism for enabling high tuition inflation and saddling borrowers with debt. The current national loan environment reflects policy priorities of increasing access along with rising costs and debt burdens.

Borrowing Trends

Student loan debt has risen dramatically over the past couple decades. According to data from the Federal Reserve, outstanding student loan debt has gone from around $250 billion in 2003 to over $1.5 trillion in 2019. This rapid increase has made student loan debt the second highest consumer debt category behind only mortgage debt.

Several factors have contributed to the rise in student borrowing:

  • College tuition and fees have increased faster than inflation and family incomes. Between 2008-2018, average published tuition and fees at public 4-year colleges rose 31% after adjusting for inflation. This has led more students to take out loans to bridge the gap.

  • More students are enrolling in college. Between 2000-2014, full-time enrollment at degree-granting institutions increased by 28%. With more students attending college, more are borrowing as well.

  • State funding cuts have shifted costs to students. Many public colleges have had to raise tuition to make up for reduced state appropriations. Students have taken on the burden through increased borrowing.

  • Limits on federal loan borrowing have increased. Dependent undergraduates can now borrow up to $31,000 in federal loans for a bachelor’s degree, up from $23,000 in the 2007-2008 academic year. This allows students to take on more debt.

  • For-profit colleges expanded, relying heavily on federal aid. For-profits tend to have higher tuition costs and encourage students to borrow the maximum in federal loans.

The rapid rise in student debt has significant implications for borrowers, the economy, and policymakers. Understanding the borrowing trends provides helpful context on this pressing issue.

Impact on Students

Student loan debt has significant impacts on college graduates. Many students graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt that they must begin repaying soon after finishing school. This debt burden causes stress and anxiety for recent graduates. They must make major financial decisions like purchasing a home, getting married, and starting a family while also budgeting to make monthly student loan payments.

High student loan balances also affect career choices for graduates. They may need to accept jobs solely based on salary to afford their monthly payments rather than pursuing more fulfilling or entrepreneurial careers. Debt can also cause graduates to delay major life milestones like buying a house, having children, or getting married. They may put off these big decisions until their loans are paid off.

The constant burden of debt has emotional and psychological effects as well. Graduates feel constrained by their student loans and unable to move forward in life. This leads to feelings of regret and sadness. Debt also causes social isolation as graduates avoid activities that cost money and spend more time alone to save. Overall, high student loan balances significantly impact nearly every area of a graduate’s life in some way. The debt weighs them down both financially and emotionally.

Financial Considerations

When taking out student loans for college, it’s important to understand the financial considerations involved. This includes the loan terms, interest rates, and repayment options.

Loan Terms

The loan term is the length of time you have to repay the loan. Federal student loans typically have 10-year standard repayment terms. Private student loans can have different terms, sometimes up to 20 years. The longer the term, the lower your monthly payment but the more interest you pay over time.

Interest Rates

Interest rates vary on student loans. Federal student loan interest rates are set by Congress. For loans issued in the 2022-23 year, undergrad federal loan rates are 4.99% and graduate federal loan rates are 6.54%. Private student loan rates depend on your credit and other factors but may be higher than federal rates.

Repayment Options

Federal student loans offer flexible repayment options:

  • Standard Repayment – Fixed monthly payments over 10 years.
  • Graduated Repayment – Payments start low and increase over time.
  • Extended Repayment – Fixed or graduated payments over 25 years.
  • Income-Driven Repayment – Monthly payments based on income and family size.

Private lenders may also offer graduated repayment or other options. Make sure to understand all repayment choices before taking out a loan.

Carefully evaluating loan terms, interest rates, and repayment plans allows borrowers to make informed decisions on student loans. Consult with financial aid advisors to determine the best loan options.

Managing Loans

Student loan debt can seem overwhelming, but there are strategies to effectively manage it. Here are some tips:

  • Make payments on time – Payment history makes up a large chunk of your credit score. Set up autopay through your loan servicer.

  • Pay extra when possible – Making just the minimum payment will cost more over time due to interest. Paying even $20-50 extra per month can make a significant difference.

  • Consolidate loans – Federal student loans can potentially be consolidated to simplify repayment. This can lower monthly payments but increase total interest paid.

  • Refinance loans – Student loans with high interest rates can potentially be refinanced for lower rates through private lenders, saving money over time. Be sure to compare carefully.

  • Sign up for income-driven repayment – Federal repayment plans like Income-Based Repayment cap payments at a percentage of discretionary income and forgive loans after 20-25 years.

  • Seek loan forgiveness programs – Jobs in public service, government, or nonprofits may qualify for federal student loan forgiveness after several years of service.

  • Communicate with servicers – Contact your servicer if struggling to make payments and ask about options like deferment, forbearance or alternative repayment plans.

  • Avoid default at all costs – Defaulting can result in damaged credit, garnished wages, and seized tax refunds. Do everything possible to stay current on payments.

With diligence and smart borrowing habits, student loans can be managed. Set yourself up for success by taking control of your debt.

Financial Aid Options

There are several types of financial aid available to help students pay for college in addition to loans. Understanding all of the options can help students minimize the amount they need to borrow.


Grants are a form of financial aid that does not need to be repaid. They are typically need-based and awarded to undergraduate students who demonstrate significant financial need. Two of the largest federal grant programs are the Pell Grant and the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG). There are also state and school-specific grant programs.


 Competitive national scholarships can provide a significant amount of aid.


Federal Work-Study allows students to earn money by working part-time in jobs on or off campus.

Savings Plans

Many states provide tax benefits for residents who invest in their 529 program.

Taking advantage of these types of financial aid in addition to federal and private student loans can help students graduate with less debt. Understanding all of the options and applying strategically is key.

Policy Issues

The current student loan system in the United States has sparked much debate around potential reforms and changes. With over $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, policymakers are considering various options to make college more affordable and student debt more manageable.

Some of the key policy debates include:

  • Loan forgiveness programs – There have been proposals around enacting broad student loan forgiveness programs, either outright forgiving a certain amount of debt per borrower or creating new income-based repayment programs that forgive remaining balances after a certain number of years. Critics argue this could be expensive and regressive.

  • Free or debt-free college – Advocates push for more federal and state funding for public colleges to reduce or eliminate tuition. Opponents cite costs and question benefits for higher earners.

  • Interest rates and refinancing – Some argue for lowering student loan interest rates and allowing refinancing at lower rates. But this reduces lender revenue.

  • Accountability for colleges – Tying federal aid eligibility to metrics like graduation rates and default rates could improve outcomes but faces legal hurdles.

  • Income share agreements – Some propose ISAs as an alternative model, where students pay back a percentage of income instead of fixed loan payments. But there are concerns around consumer protections.

There are good-faith arguments on all sides of these issues. Finding the right solutions will likely require nuanced approaches that balance college access, affordability, and responsible borrowing and lending.


As we’ve seen, student loans play a major role in higher education finance for millions of students each year. While they provide invaluable access to pursue dreams and careers, loans also create a long-term financial commitment that impacts borrowers’ lives for years after graduation.

The landscape of student lending continues to evolve, with rising costs and debt loads accompanied by expanded options and protections for borrowers. Though challenging for many, student loans remain an important tool for investing in one’s future when approached thoughtfully and responsibly.

With careful planning, research and management, students can make the most of their loans to achieve their academic goals. By understanding all the options and impacts, borrowers can navigate repayment smoothly and successfully. While loans present tradeoffs, for most they remain a worthy investment in themselves, their education and their future careers.

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