Student loans: A brief history of rising college tuition and debt

Infographic: The soaring cost of college—and how we got here

Three charts to get three generations talking about student debt.

The story of student debt begins at the height of the Cold War and ends…oh, whenever the last college grad makes the final student loan payment ever. The runaway rise of college costs from the time Baby Boomers were coed age to today is staggering to behold. Just as troubling is the flatlining of federal aid. Pell Grants have barely budged, and the maximum a student can borrow from the government (with low rates and flexible payment plans) has actually fallen slightly, when adjusted for inflation. My brand-new infographic lays out the little-known history and charts the dollar figures as they soared across three generations.

If the money available for college doesn’t increase as the price tag continues to skyrocket, how are families supposed to make up the difference? Many are relying on high-rate private student loans that leave grads with few repayment options. Some parents are borrowing big sums in the form of relatively expensive Parent PLUS loans and taking from their own retirement savings, which introduces a whole new slate of money problems down the road.

Back in 1984, when I was in college, half of undergrads came out with student debt. Today, it’s nearly 70%. And this debt is having a ripple effect across millennials’ lives. As they struggle to pay down debt, they’re postponing some of adulthood’s big, expensive milestones, like buying a home, having children, and getting married.

It can be hard for older generations to understand or empathize with what younger people are going through financially. I hope these charts spark conversations between parents and kids, and among people of all ages, so that the crisis of student debt doesn’t keep multiplying for generations to come.

Download Infographic as a PDF

baby boomers college college costs college debt college loans gen x gen y generations millennials silent generation student debt student loans

Join the conversation