One point seven trillion. That’s the amount of outstanding student debt in the United States—for now.
But don’t blink: That number is ballooning even as you read this sentence. Since the Great Recession took hold in 2008, student debt has been among the fastest-growing types of debt for everyday Americans. It’s growing faster than mortgages, auto loans, and credit card debt.
And because we live in polarized nation, we can’t agree on what to do about it. Republicans generally want to stay the course, which is to say, let the debtors sink or swim without any additional lifelines. Meanwhile, student debt is top-of-the-mind for Democrats, who are struggling to reach some kind of consensus in the weeks leading up to Joe Biden’s inauguration. Biden supports modest debt forgiveness—namely $10,000 per borrower. (With more than 40 million people eligible, the cost of that plan would be north of $400 billion.) But progressive leaders don’t think that’s nearly enough. The familiar voices of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have called for a much bolder plan: the wholesale cancellation of, if not all, then most student debt.
The costs will be enormous for any action, or lack thereof, and these unfathomably large figures are anything but human-scale. But we know a thing or two about visualizing extreme sums of money. For a sense of just how much is involved here, and how it compares with other mind-blowing sums—by comparison, $1 million per day since the birth of Jesus adds up to a measly $737 billion—watch our animation above. It’s our largest visualization to date.
For the millions of folks out there struggling with student loans, viewer discretion is advised.