Charts: How Big Debt on Campus Is Threatening Higher Ed

Back-to-school stats on how rising tuitions and student debt are leaving more grads with doubts about their futures.

The explosion of college tuition and student debt is leaving more grads with big bills and doubts about their futures. Some back-to-school stats:

1. College costs a lot more than it used to.

The good news: College grads earn 84% more than high school grads.

The bad: Getting that sheepskin is getting a lot more expensive.

Between 2000 and 2012:

• Consumer Price Index increased 33%.

• Median household income (adjusted for inflation) dropped 9%.

• Average four-year college tuition increased 44%.

• Private for-profit tuition increased 19%.

• Private nonprofit college tuition increased 36%.

• Public college tuition increased 71%.

Between 2000 and 2012:

• Public spending on public education has dropped 30% even as enrollment at public colleges has jumped 34%.


2. So we’re borrowing more to go to school.

As college costs have shot up, so has student debt. Americans owe almost $1 trillion on their student loans, 310% more than a decade ago.

In 1989, 9% of households had student debt. Today nearly 20% do.

The average amount of student loan debt has increased 177% since 1989.

3. But we can’t pay it off.

Debt is increasing fastest for those who have the least money to pay it back.

56% of all student loan debt is owed by households headed by people 35 or older.

47% of total student loan debt is held by households with incomes below $60,000.

4. And we’re putting our dreams on hold.

Nearly half of college graduates with student debt say it has made it more difficult for them to make ends meet. 24% say it has affected their career choices.

25% of recent grads say student loan debt has made them take unexciting jobs just for the money.

Student debt’s impact on borrowers’ long-term plans:

• For every $10,000 in student debt: Borrowers’ likelihood of taking a nonprofit, government, or education job drops more than 5 percentage points. Their long-term probability of getting married drops at least 7 percentage points.

• Student loans affect the housing market: Larger student debt burdens are making it harder for recent college graduates to get home loans, according to the National Association of Home Builders.

• Student loans affect the entire economy: The Financial Stability Oversight Council reports that high student debt levels could “lead to dampened consumption,” and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau warns that unpaid student loans “could be a drag on the recovery.”


Mother Jones was founded as a nonprofit in 1976 because we knew corporations and the wealthy wouldn't fund the type of hard-hitting journalism we set out to do.

Today, reader support makes up about two-thirds of our budget, allows us to dig deep on stories that matter, and lets us keep our reporting free for everyone. If you value what you get from Mother Jones, please join us with a tax-deductible donation today so we can keep on doing the type of journalism 2019 demands.

We Recommend


Give a Year of the Truth

at our special holiday rate

just $12

Order Now

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.


We have a new comment system! We are now using Coral, from Vox Media, for comments on all new articles. We'd love your feedback.