The numbers are staggering: more than $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, 40 million borrowers, an average balance of $29,000.
It's not hard to find indications that student debt is a large (and growing) problem. But unless you or someone you love holds student loans, it can be hard to feel the problem's immediacy.
That may not be the case for long. Mounting student loan debt is ricocheting through the United States, now affecting institutions and economic patterns that have been at the core of America's very might.
Men and women laboring under student debt "are postponing marriage, childbearing and home purchases, and...pretty evidently limiting the percentage of young people who start a business or try to do something entrepreneurial," said Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University and the former Republican governor of Indiana. "Every citizen and taxpayer should be concerned about it."
The high levels of student debt are also serving to perpetuate and even worsen economic inequality, undercutting the opportunity and social mobility that higher education has long promised. Americans almost universally believe that a college degree is the key to success and getting ahead—and the data shows that, generally speaking, college graduates still fare far better financially than those with just a high school diploma.
But for those who are saddled with massive student debt, even getting by can be a challenge, much less getting ahead.
"You wind up disadvantaged just as you begin. It has reduced the ability of our educational system to be a force for upward mobility, and for an equitable chance at upward mobility," said Melinda Lewis, associate professor of the practice at the University of Kansas School of Social Welfare. "It is still true that you are better positioned if you go to college, but you are not as much better positioned if you have to go to college with debt."