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Student Debt in America: A Report on the Rising Social Issue


As someone who will be attending a four-year college this fall, the thought of student debt to me is almost crippling; and I’m not alone. Between 2004 and 2014, student-loan balances more than tripled to nearly $1.2 trillion, states a 2016 article from The Economist. (“Delayed Gratification”, 2016) With the cost of college increasing in recent years, students today face more debt from continuing their education after high school than ever before. According to data from the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 86% of high school counselors are concerned about the level of debt students will take on in paying for college…and I am too. (“Did You Know”, 2007)

Although the price of college tuition is on the rise, millions of students in America still choose to continue their education after high school. But why? James M. Henslin, author of Sociology: A Down-To-Earth Approach, begins to answer this question in Chapter 12 of his textbook by discussing how the meaning of a college degree has changed over the years: “employers use diplomas and degrees as sorting devices to determine who is eligible for a job. Because employers don’t know potential workers, they depend on schools to weed out the incapable,” (Henslin, 2013). This new employer outlook has made a college education much more valuable in the workforce, and for many occupations, a requirement.

Project Approach

Before anything else, I knew that I needed to conduct quality research on the topic of student debt in America. I thoroughly researched the topic and collected facts, statistics, and common misinformation that is available on the internet. After gaining a wide understanding of

the factual information relating to student debt in America, I decided to make my research a little more personal by interviewing people who are personally affected by its effects every day. Over the past several weeks, I have interviewed ten college students regarding their personal experiences with financing their education and dealing with student debt. The questions I asked varied from closed-ended “yes or no” questions to what some may consider controversial open-ended opinions. After conducting all ten interviews, I categorized all of the answers into similar groups in which I could then analyze.

Project Findings

Out of the ten students I interviewed—varying from college freshmen to seniors—100% have some amount of student debt ranging anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars to upwards of $60,000. Although $60,000 in debt may sound daunting, all participants interviewed expressed that despite their levels of debt, a college education will be beneficial in the long run, hence the choice to pursue their educations in the first place.

Another shared response given by the interviewed participants was a strong motivation to both lower the cost of their educations and pay off their debt as soon as possible. Acts such as filling out numerous scholarship applications, switching to less expensive meal plans, taking advantage of grocery coupons, and living with roommates are just some examples of how these students reduce the total cost of their educations. Although they may seem small, these steps aid in saving students large amounts of money every semester. One student describes how she saves money by cooking her meals rather than eating on campus: “After my first semester, I realized what a waste of money my meal plan was because I never fulfilled my weekly swipe amount for meals in the cafeteria. I quit my $4,000 meal plan and started buying my own groceries and cooking meals for myself instead. Overall, I’ve saved tons and eat a lot healthier too,” (C.

McClay, personal communication, March 1, 2020). Along with taking small actions like these to reduce college costs, 7/10 of the interviewed students currently have at least one part-time job, and 10/10 have a job lined up for the upcoming summer. This motivation to work demonstrated by the students is one way they work towards paying their debt off as soon as possible.

Interview Questions Responses

Do you have student debt? 10/10: “Yes” 0/10: “No”

How much student debt do you currently

have? 1/10: “$0-$2,000” 0/10: “2,001-$10,000” 2/10: “10,001-$20,000” 5/10: “$20,001-$40,000” 2/10: “40,001-$60,000” 0/10: “60,001+”

Do you currently have a part-time job? 7/10: “Yes” 3/10: “No”

Do you have a job lined up for the upcoming

summer? 10/10: “Yes” 0/10: “No”

Have you received any scholarships? 9/10: “Yes” 1/10: “No”

Do you regret going to college? 0/10: “Yes” 10/10: “No”

Lessons Learned

After completing my field experience, several lessons have become apparent to me such as the importance of attending college for the right reasons and being proactive in limiting/paying off student debt. All of the students interviewed in my field experience were confident in their choice to attend college, but this is not the case for every student. Due to college recently becoming a social norm in America, many students today attend college without considering if it is right for them. This ignorant decision-making is why 23% of college students in America drop out before graduating, leaving these people in student debt without a diploma (Ginder, 2016). If a person makes an educated decision that college is an appropriate fit for them, they must be conscious of their student debt and work to pay it off as soon as possible. Overall,

acts of limiting spending and paying student debt off promptly—no matter how big or small—will reduce the total price of what students pay for their education.


Since the early 2000s, student debt has been rising in America at an alarming rate, but despite student loan balances tripling since 2004, more young people than ever are attending college. (“Delayed Gratification”, 2016) Because earning a college degree has become such a social norm in America, many employers now use the lack of a degree as a way to weed out potential job applicants, thus fueling the need to attend college. Despite the high cost of an education, the majority of college students view their schooling as a worthwhile investment. To keep their student loan debt as low as possible, many college students work to lower the cost of their educations by applying for scholarships, working part-time jobs, living with roommates, and more. Overall, attending college in America has become a normalcy for people who want to financially support themselves, even though the price of college is ever-increasing.

Future Implications

After conducting research and interviews on the topic of student debt in America, I’ve found myself eager in wanting to help those who feel helpless because of their student debt. This fall I will be attending the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and I’ve heard many times that colleges have lots of clubs for students to join. I decided to look into the clubs offered at UW-La Crosse to see if any of them focus on helping students with their debt… And it just so happens that one does! The club It Make$ Cents! at UW-La Crosse is a student-run organization that works to aid other students by offering: student loan coaching, personal budget creating, scholarship essay reviewing, debt management services, and more. It Make$ Cents claims that its goal is to “address the financial concerns of students that are unique to college life, and

equipping them with the knowledge, skills and resources necessary to integrate and maintain lifelong financial wellness,” (Home). Because of the interest that writing this project report has sparked in me, I plan to join the It Make$ Cents club this fall. Not only will I learn how to manage my money through doing this, but I will, more importantly, be able to help other students successfully manage their finances as well.


Thank you, Charley McClay, Maddy Thompson, Rachel Wesolowski, Lauren Ehlers, Emily Lynch, Kaylin Strike, Juldyz Woodis, Alex Johnson, Taylor Valek, and Cheyenne Tichich for answering my interview questions. Thank you, Dr. Asha Lal Tamang, for assigning this project. I will continue to make future implications based on what I have learned because of it.

Expenses Summary

There were no expenses acquired in the process of creating this project.

(please make annotations on the side.)

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