As 2019 comes to a close, for many doing a review of their finances, the decade will likely be defined by student debt.
Today, some 44 million Americans collectively hold nearly $1.6 trillion in student debt. Given that there are approximately 242 million Americans over the age of 18, that means that roughly 18% of American adults are paying off student loans.
These rates are even higher among young people. According to the Federal Reserve, over half of young adults who went to college in 2018 took on debt.
At the end of 2009, Americans held roughly $772 billion in student loans. By the end of 2019, that total had spiked to nearly $1.6 trillion — that's an increase of roughly 107%.
Here's how much Americans' outstanding student debt has grown over the past 10 years, according to the Federal Reserve:
Click to expand.
As student debt totals have risen, Americans have begun to reconsider whether college is the right choice for them.
In 2013, a Gallup poll found that 70% of U.S. adults considered a college education to be "very important," 23% felt it was "fairly important" and 6% said it was "not too important."
In 2019, those figures have fallen significantly, to 51%, 36% and 13%, respectively.
The biggest shift can be seen among young adults between the ages of 18 and 29. In 2013, 74% of Americans in this age group said college was "very important," but by 2019, just 41% said the same thing.
Stephanie Marken, author of the new analysis and executive director of education research at Gallup, says the changes are cause for concern.
"The decline in overall perceived importance is expected, given increased concerns about value, access and quality of education," she tells CNBC Make It. "However, that higher ed's target consumers, aged 18 to 29, are more negative for the first time in Gallup's history measuring this topic is particularly concerning."
It's concerning not only for policy makers interested in maintaining the competitiveness of the United States labor force as compared to peer nations, but also for those interested in helping Americans get ahead financially.
"Getting a college degree, if done right, is still the best investment you're ever gonna make," Greg McBride, chief financial analyst at Bankrate tells CNBC Make It. "Even with a modest amount of debt, borrowing $30,000, which is the typical debt of an undergrad, for $1 million in additional lifetime earnings — that's a pretty good return on investment."
You can look more closely at how much the U.S. student debt total has increased over the past decade here:
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