In the past 20 years, the average burden for a four-year college graduate in the U.S. has gone from about $9,000 to nearly $30,000 today. The percentage of students carrying debt has shot up from less than half to nearly 70 percent these days.
At a large public high school in Freemont, Calif., southeast of San Francisco, Alyssa Tucker and Thao Le sit on a metal table. Both come from families with modest incomes.
Both are 17 and facing college this fall with anxious excitement. They've put in years of hard work at Irvington: lots of late nights and weekends studying, as well as student leadership and community involvement. They've excelled academically and are confident they can shine in college, too.
But there's a price tag, and it's not just tuition: There's also housing, food, medical, transportation, books, supplies and other fees.
"I honestly have no idea how I'm going to pay for school," Tucker says. "I'm the first one in my family to go to college."
"I think we all have our fingers crossed for a full ride," Le says. "It's really scary to me. I don't know how much my parents have saved up, and I know we're low-income."
Le's father lost his engineering job during the Great Recession. Her mom works as a quality control technician. They tell their daughter not to stress: They'll do what it takes to pay for school.
"My dad even said, 'I'll even sell our house if you really need it to go to school.' " Le says. "I don't want that to happen. I know education is important. But I don't want to put everything that my parents make on the line."
Putting everything on the line is a worry shared by tens of thousands of students and their families wondering how they'll pay for higher education.
Le has applied to top schools, including Stanford, Dartmouth and USC. But she says she's ready to go to a local community college to save up, and transfer when she can afford to.
Alyssa Tucker nods. Her mother has been supportive, she says. But she knows her family has financial limits.
"I come from a pretty difficult family situation," Tucker says. "My family, they just can't afford anything else. So I'm just on my own pretty much, hoping that I don't have to take out too much in loans."
Department of Education data show that three quarters of American undergrads have some amount of "unmet financial need" they have to cover either with loans, a job while enrolled or both.
Take Pell Grants, the largest federal aid program aimed mainly at low-income students. Even after taking into account federal loans and work-study, about 86 percent of Pell recipients had nearly $9,000 in "unmet need" on average per year.
"A lot of kids, their parents don't really tell them about the whole financial situation," Le says. "Or even if they did, it's kind of hard to understand at this age, because we're just overloaded with everything else. We don't even know how taxes even work."
Recent efforts to simplify and clarify the aid process include making a family's federal tax data easier to access and requiring "net price calculators" on college websites. But critics say those changes don't go nearly far enough.
The daunting, complex aid process can be even more so for low-income and first-generation-to-college families, says Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. Navigating that tangled forest takes effort, time and savvy that some families don't have.
"It is a huge problem that it is so hard to get the information that you need," Baum says. "The information is there. It's just too complicated, and people need personal help. So if you're lucky, you have a good high school counselor. There are many websites out there that can be helpful. So it's not so much that we need more information — we need better information, and we need to get that information to people."
To apply for federal financial aid, families have to embrace the dreaded FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Families have to enter income, assets, taxes and other information. Anyone who's ever filled one out knows the FAFSA is about as much fun as doing your taxes.
It's the key form: In addition to federal assistance, many state and college aid programs use it. That FAFSA information is then filtered through one of eight formulas that look at income and several other factors. The formula then spits out a number: the "expected family contribution," or EFC — or, as one commentator called it, "exasperated financial confusion."
"Very few people would look at that number and feel like, 'Oh, no problem, I can just whip out my checkbook,' " says Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, a research and advocacy group.
Asher notes a study that shows that the complexity of the Pell Grant application process may discourage those who need it most — lower-income students who may be wavering about college because of cost worries — from even applying for aid.
"The formula that the federal aid system uses to determine your estimated family contribution is not perfect," Asher says. "Some would like to see it greatly simplified. It's a common public misperception that the lowest-income students are getting their financial aid needs met when they go to college, and that's simply not true. They are much more likely to have loans and to owe more than all other students."
Colleges have been asking students and families to cover more of the cost, Asher says, which are rising faster than family income or available grant aid. So more students — undergraduate and graduate — are borrowing ever more amounts to fill that gap.
Tracy Butler, 24, is finishing a doctorate in physical therapy in Columbus, Ohio, and her fiance is finishing a medical degree.
They are likely to earn good salaries in their respective medical fields, but their combined, mostly federal debt load, by the time they finish school later this year, will be at least $350,000.
"We're definitely planning to live minimally — not take lots of vacations or live in a fancy apartment and delay buying a house, which is unfortunate," Butler says.
She and her fiance are heartened about a relatively new federal income-based repayment program that ties the loan repayment amount to earnings and family size. After 20 years, if they still owe money, the remainder will be forgiven.
Advocacy group president Lauren Asher, who pushed for the plan, says that while it doesn't solve the problem of rising cost and debt, income-based repayment is a big step forward.
"That's a light at the end of a tunnel," she says. "The forgiveness in the income-driven plans is the assurance that your payments will not last forever. They won't follow you to the grave."
Few can predict their income five years down the line, let alone 20. But Tracy Butler says the program offers solace that the debt burden might be manageable, and may allow her and her fiance to start saving for kids, a mortgage or retirement a lot sooner.