Is college worth the cost? The question has echoed in the halls of government, over the family dinner table and throughout the media for decades. But the alarm bell has rung even louder in recent years, when student loan debt in the United States grew to over $1.2 trillion and tuition increases continued at nearly triple the rate of inflation.
Just this summer the debate about the cost of college seemed to reach a fever pitch, as dueling perspectives seized national headlines.
On the one hand, Senator Elizabeth Warren bemoaned the fact that “Millions of young people… can’t buy homes, they can’t buy cars … all because they are struggling under the weight of student loan debt.” In the same vein, President Obama declared that “we’re still seeing too big a debt load on too many young people” as he signed an Executive action that would extend income-based repayment programs for graduates who can’t earn enough to handle loan payments.
But on the other hand, a Brookings Institution study released just days later offered a starkly different message. Prominently covered by the News/Opinion vertical at The New York Times called “The Upshot,” the study said that “the impact of student loans may not be as dire as many commentators fear.” David Leonhardt of the New York Times crystallized the argument with a headline reading, “The Reality of Student Debt is Different From the Cliches.” He pointed out that students with six figure debt loads represent a fraction of the overall picture and cited data that the ratio of borrowers’ monthly loan payments to monthly income has remained consistent when measured since the early 1990s. The authors of the study further questioned whether student debt was creating any kind of drag on the economy at all.