The Whole Truth About Student Debt in 17 Charts

College graduates are supposed to be our bright spot, but runaway college costs are preventing them from participating in the economy

1. What Great De-leveraging? Americans have tempered their appetite for debt in the aftermath of the financial crisis, except when it comes to student debt. Over the last few years the outstanding amount of US student debt has surpassed the stock of automotive, home equity lines of credit and credit card debt. With just shy of $1 trillion in student loans outstanding, mortgages are the only form of debt Americans have more of.

Student-loans-Home-equity-credit-lines-Auto-Credit-Card_chart

2. More Students. Part of that is simply because more people are going to college, a long-term trend in the US.

Enrollment-in-US-degree-granting-institutions_chart

3. More Debt. On top of that long-term trend, when the great recession hit, many had difficultly finding work and instead returned to school to burnish their skills and wait out the worst of the downturn. And plenty  took on debt to do it. As a result, the number of people carrying student debt has been moving steadily higher, the New York Fed reports.

Screen Shot 2013-04-28 at 5.12.51 PM4. More Money. But it's not just numbers of people that's pushing student debt higher.  The average amount of student debt these people are taking on is growing too.

Screen Shot 2013-04-28 at 5.18.04 PM5. So Why Is That? The cost of college tuition has been rising stupidly fast in the US. Over the last 35 years, it's up more than 1,100%. During the same period, the Consumer Price Index--a broad gauge of the level of prices in the US--is up about 260%.

College-cost-inflation-US-Consumer-Price-Index_chart6. A New Reality. So, student debt is becoming a much more common fact of life for young Americans, with some 43% of all 25-year-olds carrying student debt at the end of 2012. Just eight years ago it was 27%.

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7. Don't Freak Out. It's true that more people have student debt. And it's also true that the average debt load has been moving higher. But it's important to keep in mind that the vast majority of those with student debt don't have tons of it. Here's a look at the breakdown at the end of last year, from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 1.01.14 PM8. That Said ... Larger chunks of debt are clearly becoming more common. Here's a look at the same chart, from back at the end of 2005. You can see that a lot more people have debt loads of $10,000 or more now, with a lot of growth in those with debt between $25,000-$50,000.

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 1.00.23 PM9. And ... Even a modest amount of debt can be too much if you can't make the payment. For students leaving college during and after the great recession, things have been especially tough. For example, unemployment for college grads is still quite high by historical standards. (Although it's much lower than unemployment for those without a college degree.)

Screen Shot 2013-04-29 at 2.17.28 PM10. But ... That figure includes everybody over the age of 25. A February report on the job prospects of recent graduates showed higher rates of unemployment for those between ages 20 and 29. Researchers found that the cohort of people who graduated in 2011--either from  graduate and undergraduate programs--had an unemployment rate of 12.6%. If you just look at those with bachelor's degrees, it's 13.5%.

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Matt Phillips is a reporter at Quartz, where he writes about finance, markets, and economics.

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