02/20/2013 11:31 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Surprising Facts About America's Student Debt

I recently spoke to high school students in Jackson, Miss., about how they could pay for college without going broke. Before I started, I asked two questions to the more than 300 students and parents in attendance.

1. What is America's total student debt?

a. $1 million

b. $1 billion

c. $1 trillion

2. What is the average amount of debt a typical student graduates with today?

a. $5,000

b. $15,000

c. $26,000

The answers are $1 trillion and $26,000. Less than half the audience answered correctly and, when I told them the figures, their shock was palatable.

These students in Jackson were eager to go to college, but unfortunately they knew little about their financial options, and they were largely oblivious to how these decisions would impact the rest of their lives.

Photo: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Copyright 2013

The students and parents had numerous questions about what can be a complex and intimidating process. How is my financial aid package determined? What is the difference between a subsidized and unsubsidized loan? When do I have to pay my loans back? How much will it be? Students in Jackson are not that different that students in Atlanta, Los Angeles or Chicago. Without the right resources these questions too often go unanswered.

We have some ideas about how to fix the problem. For instance, strengthening the federally mandated student loan counseling requirement could go a long way towards ensuring that students and families have the information they need to make decisions about student loans. Many students say they would love more personal contact with financial aid administrators. But there is much more we can do besides encouraging schools to meet with students.

Currently, students can "click through" a series of web pages with general information to complete their counseling requirement. A better method would be to fully incorporate personal information, already-existing repayment calculators, and interest rate differentials into a truly interactive learning experience so that students leave counseling with a thorough understanding of basic lending concepts and of their loans.

Even if students know how much they will need to repay, they often lack information about how much they will make. By requiring schools to report more data and integrating it with earnings information we could give students a better career roadmap. When we showed students' occupations and salaries post-graduation in our presentation, many reevaluated their major choices and how they would pay for college (i.e. more scholarships and grants). This data makes clear how important a college degree is, but also highlights the wide variance in success and salary between schools and programs. If students could calculate these numbers before taking on the debt, they again would be able to make choices that fit their personal circumstances and aspirations.

Certainly, better information and counseling does not solve all the problems associated with rising tuition and low completion rates. But solutions like these will help ensure that students better understand their options and the impact of their decisions. You can see the presentation I gave that day in Jackson here, and please share with high school students who can use it.

This post was written by Jasmine Hicks. She is the State Outreach coordinator for the Young Invincibles (YI), where she works with organizations around the country to make sure young people's concerns are being heard. Follow her organization @YI_Cares
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