How Student Loans Set Millennials Back For Life

Here’s the Math: We Pay Debt Instead of Buying Homes

Karla Starr
4 min readMay 5, 2022


Lately, my news feed has been overrun by articles stating that canceling student loan debt is an issue of “college graduates’ agenda-settting power.” It’s a trap, they say! Some pundits are currently saying that it will have dire consequences for the Biden administration, and only benefit those who are well-off, and do nothing to erase the racial wealth gap.

What a lie.

Photo courtesy of Pexels

School is So Much More Expensive

  • In 1971, Harvard tuition was $2,600 a year. ($18,500 in 2022 dollars)
  • In 2022, it was $52,659—nearly three times the price, when adjusted for inflation.

Inflation can make it easy to dismiss generational price differences (minimum wage was only $1.60 in 1971!”), so here we go:

  • In 1971, minimum wage was $1.60. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $10 in today’s dollars.
  • In 2022, federal minimum wage is $7.25 (and has been since 2009).

Translate this to a universal measurement: time.

In Making Numbers Count, I learned that one of the best ways to help other people look at differences between numbers is to use time—it’s a measurement we all use everyday.

  • In 1971, paying for a year at Harvard would take 1,625 hours of minimum wage work—40 weeks. (Less than a year)
  • In 2022, that same year at Harvard would take 7,263 hours of work to pay for—181 weeks, or over four and a half times longer to pay off.

I tried to put this statistic in the book, but my coauthor voted against it (and had the final say). One of his arguments was that “Harvard graduates don’t make minimum wage.” I did the math for attending a public college:

Public College Costs:

  • In 1971, public tuition, fees, room and board per year: $1,410. ($10,009, when adjusted for inflation.)
  • In 2022, public tuition, fees, room and board per year: $24,500.

That’s 2.5 times more expensive. And how to pay that off? 22 weeks vs. 84 weeks—almost four times



Karla Starr

Speaker & author x2, inc. Making Numbers Count (w/ Chip Heath). Behavioral science, cultural history, numbers.