Abstract

The goal of “college-for-all” in the United States has been pursued in an environment of rising tuition, stagnant grant aid and already strapped family budgets with the gap filled by college loans. College students are thus facing increasing levels of debt as they seek to develop their human capital and improve their career options. Debt is a useful resource for making needed investments. It is unique as a resource, however, because it must be repaid and can thus also increase vulnerabilities and limit options. We find that lower levels of educational debt do support college completion. However, additional educational debt beyond about $10,000 actually reduces the likelihood of college completion compared to lower levels of debt as the burden of repayment looms. Graduation likelihoods for students from the bottom 75% of the income distribution at public universities are especially influenced by debt. The article considers how the macro-level changes in financing societal functions influence the individual-level risks and vulnerabilities of life in a debt-based society.

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