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The cost of college is rising, and those most in danger of missing out on the rewards of higher education and suffering the burden of student loan debt are people who do not finish their studies, experts told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Tuesday.
"The big problems with debt are students who don't complete their work, or students who find themselves simply unable to find a job," said Bob Kerrey, former U.S. senator and president of The New School, and currently executive chairman of the Minerva Project's Institute for Research and Scholarship.
Tuition is outpacing the rate of inflation by nearly 6 percent. That has contributed to an environment in which 40 million consumers have taken out a total of $1.2 trillion in student loans—only about half of which is in repayment at present.
The effect of that debt load is evident as young Americans wait longer to start families and buy houses. But it is also clear in terms of trends in debt payment and default.
The average amount of student loans in default was $14,853 per borrower as of June. While student loans make up only 10 percent of all consumer debt, they accounted for nearly one-third of all seriously past-due debt payments.
Americans at the bottom of the economic divide are most likely to fall short of graduation, said Arizona State University President Michael Crow.
"In the lower half of family incomes, completion rates are unbelievably low, and the lower quarter of family incomes, they're under 10 percent for college graduates," he told "Squawk Box."
To remedy that, schools must embark on more structural and technological innovation and speed up the education process, he said.
Read More 11 strategies to avoid student loan debt
If the United States is to meet the needs of the economy during the next 10 years, the country will have to figure out a way to help students afford college and finish their studies, said Jack DeGioia, president of Georgetown University.
"Every year, right now, there are 440,000 young people who finish in the top half of the SAT or ACT, who if they got into a top 400 college or university would graduate at a rate of about 82 percent, and they would have lifetime earnings $1 million greater than if they had just finished high school," he told "Squawk Box."
"And there are 11 million jobs that will be created in the next decade that require postsecondary education that will go unfilled because we can't get these completion rates higher."
—CNBC's Sharon Epperson contributed reporting to this story.