Most Americans believe paying off student loans will take over two decades

Despite what most coming-of-age movies might say, college isn’t always just about debating the afterlife while fueling yourself on a diet of cheap beer and late night pizza (or Ramen, depending on the day). Higher education has become an increasingly well-trod and pressured path, as a lack of degree can be a barrier of entry for some careers, especially due to stigma in certain sectors. Even so, it seems as if this promise of career growth sometimes comes at an initial cost. 

New research from insurance company Northwestern Mutual as conducted by The Harris Poll shows as much. Surveying more than 4,500 U.S. adults, it found respondents, on average, expect college to cost $77,300 in total—and they’re expect to pay off their debt by the age of 45. 

The average cost of an undergraduate degree increased by 169% between 1980 and 2020, according to Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Of course, that means each new generation has a heftier financial burden when throwing their grad cap. Two in ten adults are saving up for college, a good portion of which are Gen Zers —per Northwestern Mutual.

Gen Xers have found student loans have tracked into their older adulthood, as a 2022 Credit Karma report found that 23% of student-loan carriers were 45 and older. It could potentially delay their retirement goals. And this cohort is also often paying dual student fees, as they save up for their children, too. Ignoring the put-your-own-lifejacket-on-first saying, just over one in five of these parents trying to save money for their kids are still paying off their own debt. And 95% of American parents saving for their kid’s education anticipate covering more than half of the bill, according to Northwestern Mutual. 

Millennials, too, have been pushed back a bit when it comes to wealth building as they tackle their debt. Of course, they’ve made some ground recently, but many report feeling locked out of milestones like owning a house or having kids.  

“When I think of starting a family, I have hesitation to even wanting to do that,” a millennial named Kelly told Fortune’s Alicia Adamcyk. “Starting to save for your kids’ student loans while still paying your own off, that’s something I don’t want to do,” she said, adding that she’s “kind of playing catch-up.”

Of course, the price of college and the lack of guarantee that it will lead to a dream job has led to some critics questioning if it’s even worth it. Younger adults across the globe (specifically in China and the U.S.) have struggled to find gigs that match their qualifications immediately out of the gate. Some remain unemployed and searching and others have accepted underpaid jobs. Gen Z is shaping up to be the most educated generation, inheriting a great price tag in the process. 

Even with lingering loans and some disappointment at the start, many experts assert that higher education is still important. The most impactful decision point in getting a “good job” was having a bachelor’s degree, according to an analysis from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce of 8,000 adults born in the 1980s. And 90% of 2023 graduates think their degree was worth it, according to Harris Poll.

College is said by some to be unforgettable, but even if the memories don’t last, young adults have the decades-long bills to jog their memory.

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