Student loan debt has become such a reoccurring news story now that at least one presidential hopeful is vowing, or pandering, depending on your viewpoint, to forgive the massive debt by sticking taxpayers with the bill.

Americans owe more than $1.56 trillion in student loans, which are spread across 45 million borrowers. By comparison, that’s about $525 billion more than the total U.S. credit card debt.

Many factors came into play to create this humongous amount of debt, including the ever-growing cost of a college degree. According to ValuePenguin, a personal finance company, the average cost for a single year of college at an in-state public university is over $25,000, with private colleges averaging more than $50,000. Those numbers typically go up each year.

A big part of the debt problem appears to be that many college students don’t have a realistic understanding of how difficult it is to pay off the money they borrow. That’s why 11.5 percent of student loans are currently delinquent or in default. There’s a prevailing notion that college grads will land great jobs after getting their degrees and then pay everything back. It’s one of those ideas that sound good on paper and while it works for some, it’s not a magic bullet solution for everyone.

There’s a pretty significant gap between the pay they expect to make and the actual starting salaries they’re offered. They expect to earn $60,000 a year for their first job, according to LendEDU. Instead, data shows the average starting salary for a college grad with a four-year degree is $48,400.

Whether or not that’s a good starting salary is debatable, but what’s clear is that graduates expect a whole lot more. Many of them paid for at least part of their college by borrowing against their future salaries. Consequently, a lower than expected income makes getting out of debt more challenging. Still, when I look at average monthly payments for student loans and the lifetime earnings for grads, the numbers are in graduates’ favor.

Monthly student loan payments are just under $400 on average, according to the Federal Reserve. Over the course of a lifetime, male college graduates earn about $900,000 more than those who didn’t attend college, says the U.S. Social Security Administration, and female grads make $630,000 more. These are averages, of course, which means some will make substantially more while others will make less than people who never went to college.

When attending college or a trade school, or jumping right into the workforce, borrowing a lot of money when you’re young can be an extremely difficult burden to overcome. Idealistically, taking out loans can give anyone the opportunity to chase the American Dream and pursue their version of happiness. Realistically, that money has to be paid back, which can be like trying to swim with an anvil tied around your neck.

Higher education loans are often necessary and the only means for some people to attend college or a trade school. Before signing on the dotted line, it’s critically important to do some research, balance the numbers and personal economics, and have an accurate view into the cost of education versus starting salaries for each major. In other words, know what you’re committing to before you take the money.

South regional editor

Deena is the regional editor for Shakopee, Jordan, Prior Lake and Savage and is passionate about uncovering the truth. Deena also enjoys gardening, playing tennis and up-cycling furniture.

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