Watching the Clock

Remember back in 2008 when news sites spun into a tizzy over the National Debt Clock? The debt had topped $10 trillion and the clock ran out of digits. Bigger debt called for a bigger clock, and the machine was replaced in 2009.

Today, meet the Student Debt Clock.

It’s produced by FinAid.org, a nearly 20-year-old site that aggregates financial aid information for students.

As I write, the clock is steadily climbing higher—topping $1.1 trillion. It’s at $1,105,703,514,381 at this very moment, and the site estimates that loan debt is rising at more than $2,800 per second.

Those numbers are at the heart of many headlines these days. Certain student loan interest rates doubled on July 1. USA Today produced a comprehensive infographic called “Millennials’ ball-and-chain”—just one of many, many dark headlines. And—my personal favorite—editorial cartoonist Matt Bors created the best response to Millennial-bashing I’ve seen to date.

The numbers are stark:

  • $1.1 trillion in student loan debt
  • 65% of those receiving bachelor’s degrees in 2011 held outstanding student loan debt
  • 13.3% of recent college graduates, age 20 to 29, were unemployed in 2012

Predictions from economists are dire:

  • Millennials are waiting to buy homes.
  • They’re waiting to start families.
  • They’re delaying building up retirement accounts.
  • We might even, some researchers predict, see the bursting of an “education bubble.”

(An economic researcher I spoke with last fall referred to all of this as a downward spiral. When one up-and-coming generation puts off spending, he explained, it keeps the economy from growing as much as it could. This slower economy, in turn, can re-enforce thrifty habits which re-enforces that slower growth.)

Meanwhile, the clock keeps climbing. (It’s now at $1,105,707,833,994—an increase of more than $4 million.)

It’s easy to get lost in the numbers and the headlines and the apocalyptic predictions laid out for us. There is no giant student loan debt clock near Times Square to throw reporters in a tizzy.

College way back when (here the Iowa State College of Agriculture from 1903 via Wikimedia Commons)

Still I find something terrifying yet mesmerizing in FinAid’s clock climbing steadily, dollar by dollar, to heights unimaginable to the Millennials’ grandparents who paid a fraction of the tuition costs in their day.

(It’s now $3 million higher at $1,105,710,173,083.)

This clock will not run out of digits.

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