Having recently sold an older but impeccable German sports car for a substantially cheaper and more practical Japanese econobox, I found myself in the odd position of having an amount of cash on hand greater than what would be necessary to escape the country on short notice. In the spirit of responsible adulthood I decided that it would make the most sense to close out my student loan debt. My student loan debt is old enough to drive; I graduated with my bachelor's degree in 1999 and the money owed for services long ago rendered has been more or less a permanent feature for my entire adult life. Now it's gone.
I had to borrow about $30,000 to cover my educational expenses between the time I graduated from high school in 1996 and from college in December of 1999 (grad school fortunately didn't cost anything except seven years of my life that I'll never get back). Combined with perhaps another $5000 run up on credit cards to cover my extravagant insistence on food and shelter and the earnings of various part-time forms of employment throughout, my college degree cost me around $35,000. As insecure and unsuccessful people tend to do, I'm always eager to point out that I wasn't on the Mommy and Daddy plan as most undergraduates are/were. I did the kind of shit that political candidate boast about in an attempt at authentic Common Man cred. There was more than one occasion on which I got 30 days of meals out of a 50 pound bag of rice. I probably have all the canceled rent checks in a box somewhere, and I can regale you with how hard it was to make some of them clear.
The point here is not that I'm a good person because we all know that's silly, nor is it to argue that hard work and self-reliance build character. I wouldn't recommend doing it that way to anyone, ever. It sucked. It was equal parts anxiety and fatigue and it was absolutely No Fun. If someone else would have offered to pay my bills I would have taken them up on it in a heartbeat. Anyone who claims otherwise, that they would never pass up the character-building opportunity it offers, is lying or very stupid. Instead, the point is that I managed to get out of a very good state university with a degree for a grand total of $35,000, give or take. What would the same thing cost today? Any way you look at it, my experience of being a normal person going to a normal school without a massive amount of outside financial support now sits on the boundary dividing unlikely and impossible.
If, instead of something like $12,000 per year the school had asked me for $25-30,000 per year as they do today, what would have been my options? There's no way I could pay that out of pocket. Assuming I borrowed it, my total debt at graduation would look more like $90,000-100,000 instead of $30,000. It took me long enough to pay back what I actually owed. How long would it take me, and at what cost to my other financial options in life, to pay off three times as much? Aside from the baseline cost of tuition and other class-related expenses like textbooks and fees, the cost of living in most college towns has gone through the roof as well. I dare you to find affordable housing (for students and non-students alike) in the proximity of your average big university. As an undergraduate I was able to rent studio/efficiency apartments for something like $400/month back in the late 1990s. That same apartment is, according to the property management company's website, a $900/month apartment 16 years later. And I bet it's still the same carpet.
When doing the math, the inescapable conclusion is that anyone who hopes to get a college degree today is in one of three situations. They could get a cheap online degree and find that it's worthless. They could borrow the money to pursue a more expensive and valuable degree and then graduate with a truly crushing and ludicrous amount of debt. Or they could have rich parents who pay for it, graduating with the ability to pursue opportunities rather than taking whatever shit job pays best in order to start chipping away at a six-figure loan balance.