For the first time ever, the total amount of student loans taken out last year in the U.S. topped $100 billion. And sometime this year, it’s expected that outstanding student loan debt will hit $1 trillion — also for the first time ever.
Using data from the College Board, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and other sources, a USA Today story lays out the seriously disturbing state of student loan debt today. In addition to the record-setting factoids above, there are these:
What’s more, there are plenty more borrowers who haven’t fallen quite as behind on student loan payments, but who are nonetheless struggling. Over the summer, a report showed the student loan delinquency rate (when loans are more than 90 days past due) at 11.2%. In other words, more than 1 in 10 people with student loans were more than three months behind in their payments.
While student loans are typically portrayed as the best kind of debt to take on—you’re investing in your future, after all—these loans are also among the scariest, most inescapable sort of debt out there. Declaring personal bankruptcy won’t get rid of them. If you can’t pay off a mortgage or a credit card, there are ways out—via short sales and negotiations to pay off debt for pennies on the dollar. Nothing along these lines is possible, however, with student loan debt.
All of this sounds pretty scary. Now add in the fact that the employment levels for young people reached their lowest levels ever over the summer. The proportion of Americans ages 16 to 24 in the workforce was just 59.5% in July 2011. That’s the lowest rate in any July on record, and it’s down substantially from, for example, July of 1989, when 77.5% of young people were in the workforce. In September, the unemployment rate for men ages 20 to 25 stood at 15.8%, much higher than the rate for the general population (9.1%), and both of these figures are understated because they don’t factor in people who have never joined the workforce or who have given up looking for jobs.
Then again, while it may seem like a bad idea to take on hefty student loans with the jobs market in such awful shape, workers who never earn college degrees typically have a poor understanding of things like late fees and interest payments—and they often wind up in even worse financial straits than the folks struggling to pay off their student loans.
Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.