Here’s A Diploma, With Ball And Chain Attached

Frogs, as everyone has heard, will sit quietly in a pot of steadily warming water until they are boiled alive. This is not actually true. In reality, frogs will jump out of the pot as soon as it gets too hot, because scalding water hurts like hell. Similarly, anxiety about student-loan debt has reached a boiling point over the past year, and the American public seems increasingly inclined to bail out of the higher-education system.

The first signs appeared last fall, held above the heads of Occupy protesters who saw their indenture to banks as an intergenerational betrayal. "I went to college like I was told I should, and now I owe $45,000, $80,000, $125,000, in a ruined economy with no jobs to be found," they said. The numbers were designed to shock, and they did, appearing on newscasts and Web petitions nationwide.

Last year also saw the emergence of one of those sticky shorthand statistics that defy conventional wisdom: $1-trillion in accumulated student-loan debt, more even than credit cards. Credit cards! Anyone who lives in this country has a gut sense of how much stuff charge-happy Americans buy with their Visa and American Express cards. Whole mountains and oceans of consumer goods. And somehow college costs even more than that?

One trillion is the last big number in modern life, the only sum that can still impress us with incomprehensible size. Why, people wondered, are our colleges hanging a weight that big around our necks? Sending your kids to college used to be an occasion for pride and a little sorrow, a passage to adulthood and the next phase of life. It has become a looming financial chasm for middle-class families, a source of constant, growing dread.

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