Student loans graphic

Every college student has joked about being “broke.” Going out to eat too often, online shopping and grabbing one too many drinks at Starbucks before class can all add up, but such small costs do not come close to the financial burden of student loans.

The statistics are frightening. More than 49 million Americans owe $1.57 trillion in student loans for an average of $36,510 per borrower, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The average cost of a four-year public university for an in-state student is $35,720 per year, and prices for out-of-state students and private universities are even higher. Perhaps the scariest stat of them all: it takes Americans an average of 20 years to pay off their student loan debt.

Those are just numbers, though. Enormous numbers that are essentially impossible to comprehend and can be easy to distance oneself from. They cannot quantify the pain debt can cause. 

Most students graduate at around 22 years old. If it took a graduate 20 years to pay off her loans, she would be 42 — old enough to have children and to be thinking about college for those children.

If she is able to afford a house and a car, she probably has monthly payments. She may be trying to save for retirement, or just trying to put food on the table. And yet, paying for her college education — an investment she hoped would create a more stable future — burdens her well beyond graduation.

But consequences begin far before that. Younger graduates often have to put off buying a home, or take jobs with higher pay over jobs they truly enjoy in the interest of paying off loans. Those whose parents or guardians cannot afford to pay tuition rely on scholarships or work multiple jobs, in addition to taking out loans, in order to access education in the first place.

What is the solution? Some think all student loan debt should be forgiven, and that college education should be free. Some think the high cost of college is an incentive for universities to provide quality education, an incentive that would be lost under such policies. Some argue for a middle ground, like canceling debt up to a certain threshold or for households at or below a middle-class income bracket. 

There is no simple answer to the student debt crisis, but one thing is certain: there needs to be more recognition from university administrators of the burden such debt places on students. Required textbooks and online subscriptions contribute significantly to financial stress at the beginning of each semester. Having a social life is expensive, too — getting coffee, going to dinner, buying tickets to athletic events — things that college students expect and deserve to participate in. Every part of the “college experience” costs money. 

Students also have expenses beyond campus life. Young adults with no experience in financial literacy have to learn to budget for groceries, gas and bills. Some people seeking an education are parents or caretakers. Some have full-time jobs on top of those responsibilities. The barriers to entry are high for every kind of student, especially those in lower income brackets.

If students are expected to go into significant debt to attend college, there should be high transparency about the way their tuition is used. The page on the UA website dedicated to the university budget — a resource I only just discovered — is unintuitive and difficult to navigate. A detailed cost analysis that is easily accessible and well advertised would help students feel more confident about where their money is going.

Debt in general is a complicated issue, but not all debts are created equal. Charging food to your credit card one too many times is not the same as furthering your education in pursuit of a better life. In a society where many jobs require a bachelor’s degree, that degree should not have a price tag so hefty it sends millions of people into debt for decades.

There is no one solution, but there has to be a conversation.

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