America's promise has always been of upward mobility. And for generations, the most certain ride to that dream has been a .college education.

Financially, college's advantages are clear. The average worker with a college degree earned $46,435 in 2006, the most recent year for U.S. Census Bureau estimates. The average worker with only a high-school diploma earned less than two-thirds that.

It's no wonder then that young people have flocked to our nation's two- and four-year colleges. In 1950, fewer than 10 percent of adults over 25 had bachelor's degrees. By 2007, that had nearly tripled to 27 percent, according to the census.

Yet, all is not right with this picture.

Like so much else in America's credit-crazed economy, going to college increasingly requires crushing debt.

While some elite liberal arts schools such as Harvard and Amherst have committed in the past two years to providing free tuition for all low-income students who qualify, that's not the case at any of Oregon's more than two dozen colleges and universities.

Today, the average debt load for a student who borrows money and finishes four years of college in Oregon is $19,667, slightly more than the national average of $19,646, according to the Oregon Student Association, a lobbying group, and the Project on Student Debt, a national organization.

But that's also a startling increase over previous years, according to a new report from the nonprofit advocacy group Demos, "Economic State of Young America."

Between 1993 and 2004, the median student loan debt for Americans with bachelor's degrees from four-year public colleges grew 78 percent, from $8,226 to $14,671, the report states. For students with associate's degrees, that figure jumped 72 percent, to $5,879 in the same time period.

There's a reason for this. As public investment has diminished, tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities in the United States have increased each year to make up the difference. Since 2002, those increases have ranged between 6 and 13 percent in current dollars—far above the overall inflation rate, according to the College Board, which publishes annual reports on the costs of a degree. Between 2006 and 2007 alone, average tuition and fees at Oregon's public and private four-year colleges and universities rose 7 percent.

Per-student state subsidies for higher education have been on the decline since the 1980s. And federal aid hasn't kept pace with rising tuitions.

Someone must pay the price. Guess who that is.

Undergraduates have turned to private loans to fill the void, according to the College Board. By 2007, private loans accounted for 24 percent of all education lending, making the private student loan sector a $14.5 billion annual enterprise—the equivalent of the annual tax breaks given to the oil, gas and utilities industries under the Bush administration beginning in 2005. Two out of three students take out loans, government or private, today. In 1993, less than half did.

The dirty secret of today's economy is that the odds are stacked against the under-35 set. College graduates are hitting the books just to stay even with their parents' economic performance. They're paying more for less.

A high-school diploma is necessary, but not enough to propel a student into the middle class, census figures reveal. A college degree is the new high-school diploma; a master's is the new bachelor's, says Tamara Draut, author of the 2005 book Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead.

Draut sees higher education as the ladder for most young adults to their own middle-class existence. But policymakers are sawing off the rungs of the ladder, she says, by underfunding the educational aid programs that helped baby boomers and their parents get ahead. Anybody heard of any big GI Bill lately?

"This is the irony," Draut says. "As it's become more important to get a four-year degree in terms of the earnings—as the gap between earnings of the college haves and the college have-nots has widened—it's actually become a lot more expensive to go to college. And the public policies, both federal financial aid and state policy in terms of supporting higher education, have completely fossilized."

The inescapable conclusion: There are tough times ahead for the happy students graduating from high school and college across Portland and Oregon this month and next.

Below are five people at different stages of experiencing the risks and rewards of the student loan juggernaut. None of them could have gone to college—or, in some cases, earned their advance degrees—without student loans. They all say they would do it again. But the financial burden of repaying those debts has affected everything about their lives, from where they live to what they eat. Here's how:

Alex Knapp, 18

Education: Graduates June 1 from Wilson High School, plans to enroll at Drexel University in Philadelphia in the fall

Salary: $0

Expected debt when he graduates in 2012: $105,000

No one's going to shed a tear for Knapp, a bright Southwest Portland high-school senior who has chosen an expensive private college on the East Coast instead of a public university here in Oregon.

"It would be really cheap and really easy to go to PSU or the University of Oregon," Knapp says, sitting on an olive-green couch in his parents' 2,000-square-foot 1960s ranch-style home in the Hillsdale neighborhood. "But I think it's an important thing to go out and discover new parts of the country."

Knapp's decision to attend a school where annual tuition plus room and board is about $50,000 is neither unusual nor discouraged in today's hypercompetitive college admissions racket. Taking out huge loans is both easy and normal.

At least one member of Knapp's family thinks Knapp might want to reconsider his impending move. That would be Knapp's older brother, Clayton, the 21-year-old bass player for the Portland band Eskimo and Sons. Clayton, who also went to Wilson High, attended Harvey Mudd College in California—a small, West Coast version of MIT—then Brown University for a single semester.

He dropped out in his sophomore year when his money—from family and scholarships—dried up and he, too, faced the prospect of taking out massive student loans. He now plans to finish his degree some day at a public university in Oregon.

"I urged him to seriously think about his decision and not only how it would affect him in the next four years, but how his decision would affect him in the future and the rest of his life," says Clayton Knapp. "I wanted to be a voice of reason."

Alex Knapp could be in a much worse bind. He has nearly $30,000 in savings from a settlement he got after a car accident when he was a child. And his mother and stepfather have agreed to help him with an additional $5,000 a year.

Still, even with that assistance and Drexel's offer of a $10,000-a-year merit scholarship, Knapp says he'll finish $105,000 in debt.

"Maybe I'm just dumb," he says, "but I have this feeling that it's going to be OK."

Courtney Morse, 22

Education: Three years at Portland State University, where she was student body president in 2006-2007

Salary: $2,000 a month, as secretary of state candidate Kate Brown's field organizer

Current student loan debt: $43,000

Expected repayment date: 2038

As student body president at PSU, Morse spent lots of time in 2007 lobbying the Oregon Legislature for more higher education money.

Then, with only a year to go before earning her own undergraduate degree in political science, she dropped out. The interest rate on one of her loans was 14.25 percent, and with $43,000 in debt she made the decision that taking out more money to finish college just wasn't worth it.

"I was a hopeful freshman," says Morse, a Wisconsin native who paid out-of-state tuition for her first and second year at PSU before qualifying as an Oregon resident in her junior year. "I thought I could pay it back."

But the debt spiraled: She took on as much debt in her third year at PSU as she did in her first and second years combined. It was all she knew to do. "As you're going through college, you're just doing what it takes, because you can't imagine leaving college," she says.

Eventually, however, the debt became unmanageable, especially given her plans to work as a political organizer. "It's really a problem that my generation is experiencing firsthand," Morse says. "I think a lot of people don't appreciate the severity of it."

In July, Morse expects to have to begin paying off her loans, which she had deferred for a year. Her share of the rent at the house she shares in the Hawthorne neighborhood with three roommates is $400. Her monthly loan payment will be $528.

The prospect of returning to school seems slim. "I don't honestly see it as a possibility for a while," Morse says.

Graham McConnell, 24

Education: Graduated from Cleveland High School in 2002 and Pacific University in Forest Grove in 2006

Salary: $31,000, as Internet marketing assistant for Geochron, a Portland clockmaker

Current student loan debt: $24,000

Expected repayment date: 2020

Student loan debts don't sink everyone. But even for graduates who budget their money well, the amount they owe cramps their lifestyles.

McConnell graduated from Pacific University two years ago with a major in business. For the first 18 months after graduation, he lived at his parents' Mount Tabor home. His first job out of college was making $7.50 an hour at Hollywood Video.

He now lives in a one-bedroom apartment near the same neighborhood where he grew up and works at a company that makes sophisticated clocks. From his entry-level salary of about $31,000 he must cover his monthly student loan payment of $166 together with his monthly rent of $700 and a $225 car payment. That leaves him with only $700 a month to pay for utilities, food, cell phone bills, clothing and gas. As for savings, he's able to put aside $50 a month.

Yet McConnell doesn't second-guess his college choices. His parents also helped him with about $12,500 a year, meaning he had to take out just $28,000 in loans, about 40 percent more than the national average. "I think it's totally worth it," he says.

He does small things to save extra cash. After listening to a radio program on getting better gas mileage, he "hyperinflates" the tires on the used car he bought last year, a 2005 Honda Civic with 30,000 miles that came with a lifetime guarantee of free tires (a good thing, since hyperinflating wears out tires faster). He's still on his parents' cell phone "family plan." He also coaches club soccer for $2,000 a season. "I do it because I love it, and the money is extra," he says.

And he doesn't have a credit card. That kind of debt worries him. "I would never want to have that hanging over me," he says.

To get ahead—and to maintain the lifestyle his parents, a Multnomah County paralegal and a Department of Justice administrator, gave him and his sister—McConnell now plans to take on even more debt and go to graduate school, perhaps to study business. His view is optimistic.

"I'll have to have more debt," he says, "but I'll also be making more money."

Erin Bray, 27

Education: Bachelor's degree in English, Whitman College 2003

Salary: $40,000 as an English teacher at Evergreen High School in Vancouver, including $4,500 for coaching girls' soccer

Total debt: $16,000 in student loans, $250,000 in home loans, $7,000 in credit-card debt, plus her husband's $25,000 in student loans

Expected repayment date: 2033

The financial footing of Bray's childhood compared with her mother's can be summed up with the tale of two Christmases.

Bray, who lives in North Portland, grew up in Cañon City, Colo., southwest of Colorado Springs.

Just before she turned 16, in 1996, her mother and father—a nurse and a teacher—gave her a 1988 Toyota Corolla for Christmas.

Growing up on Staten Island as the daughter of a truck driver and a stay-at-home mom, Bray's mother, Dianne, was more likely to get a pair of used ice skates under her Christmas tree, as in fact she did one year.

Bray, however, attended one of the best private colleges in the Northwest, en route to improving on her parents' educational achievements, which in generations past probably would have meant greater financial security for her for life.

Now she's not so sure.

Bray points to her easy access to credit—in the form of student loans, credit cards and a home loan—as the source of her progress. She graduated from college, paid for a wedding, and purchased a house, all before turning 30.

Yet credit is also how Bray has masked the limitations of her $40,000 teaching salary. "Our life doesn't necessarily reflect the life of debt," she says while drinking a Miller High Life after work in the living room of her 1,000-square-foot Arbor Lodge home, surrounded by a hodgepodge of furniture from Target, IKEA and yard sales. Her husband, Eric Marsh, is a fourth-grade teacher in Canby who earns less than $40,000 a year but has $25,000 of his own student debt from undergraduate and graduate school.

College-educated women are the only demographic group among young people today whose earnings have risen compared with the previous generation, according to author Tamara Draut.

Still, Bray feels like something of an exception. Since graduating with $18,000 in student loans, just under the national average, she's shaved only about $2,000 off the top, with $165 monthly payments at 2.9 percent interest. "I don't feel like I'll ever be wealthier than my parents were," she says.

Josh Seeds, 31

Education: Bachelor of science degree in biochemistry, Washington State University, Pullman; master's in environmental science, WSU, Vancouver

Salary: $45,000, as a water-quality analyst for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality

Current student loan debt: $90,000, plus $21,000 in student debt from his wife

Expected repayment date: 2043

By the time Seeds pays off his student loans, he expects to be 67 and eligible for Medicare and Social Security. His youngest child will be in his 30s.

Seeds faces $90,000 in student loan debt, and that doesn't include the $21,000 his wife, Kara, owes for one year of nursing college.

With three kids and a fourth on the way, juggling the cost of housing, food, gas and clothing is so difficult, Seeds has had to put his loans in forbearance, which means he's not chipping away at the accumulating interest of 6.25 percent. Instead, he and his wife are focused on paying off just her debt.

An Idaho native, Seeds took out loans to pay his $14,000 annual tuition at WSU. He graduated in 1998 with a degree in biochemistry and moved to Portland shortly after finishing school, briefly working for the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group collecting money and signatures. He then got a job as a researcher in a lab at Oregon Health & Science University, making $16,000 a year with benefits.

By the time Seeds left that job three years later, he was earning $19,000 a year and making minimum monthly payments of about $120 on his undergraduate loans. To earn more and to get out of the lab and into the field to do environmental work, he decided he needed a master's degree—and to take on more debt.

"I knew what I was getting into," Seeds says. "At the same time, I was still operating under the same assumption, which might have been willful naiveté. But you kind of do figure that when you have a graduate degree, you're going to be good to go."

What he found was a job at a Legacy Emanuel Hospital neurobiology lab, studying strokes and earning $11 an hour at first, then $12.75. He was 28, a single parent with a daughter at the time. Eventually he managed to eke out a raise that brought his hourly wage to $19.50.

He now earns $21 an hour at DEQ.

Still, he must choose between replacing work shoes with holes or buying inexpensive clothing for his 9-year-old daughter and two sons, ages 4 and 1. He and his wife, who stays at home to take care of their family at their two-bedroom bungalow in the Boise-Eliot neighborhood, grow some of their own food, don't eat out often and don't often buy alcohol.

Seeds' father went to college on the GI Bill and worked as a financial manager for a timber company. His mother went back to school when Seeds was 10. She then got a job as an auditor for the Internal Revenue Service. Both Seeds' parents could retire before 65, and now they live comfortably in Idaho, traveling to U.S. National Parks with their trailer in tow and visiting their grandchildren in Portland.

It's disheartening to Seeds, one of three children, that he won't be able to achieve what his parents did. Moreover, it's frustrating he probably won't be able to help his own children attend college because of his own debt, he says.

"I think there's a myth out there that if you get a degree, you'll be able to pay off your loans and the jobs are out there," Seeds says. "When you talk to the loan people or the financial aid people at school, their attitude is, 'Don't worry about it, you're going to take out these loans, but then you're going to be able to get a great job, and you'll be able to pay them off, no problem. You're young, and the loans aren't that big.' I definitely feel like I was lied to."

There may be good news for all five of these folks. Democratic and Republican policymakers are demonstrating increasing awareness of the massive financial burdens facing Gen-X'ers and subsequent generations. Congress has worked to reduce interest rates on federal student loans.

"I think we're reaching a tipping point," Draut says. "Most people think the amount of debt it takes to get a bachelor's degree today is too high."

U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who's facing a tough re-election battle in November, is one of those people. He's voted to increase the funding for federal Pell Grants, the most important form of financial aid for low-income students.

Some advocates, however, hope for more. That includes Smith's Democratic opponent, Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley. He's calling for an expansion of the Pell Grants program, which does not yet have the funds to help students who qualify to pay more than about one third of the cost of tuition.

"This is the first generation coming of age after 30 years of disinvestment in the public sector," Draut says. "It's a new era, we haven't modernized our social contract, and this generation is dealing with the consequences."

Annual tuition at Oregon's public universities ranges from $4,000 to $8,000 for residents and $4,000 to $13,000 for nonresidents. That's if they're earning 15 credit hours.

Private loans were less than 5 percent of all student loans 10 years ago, according to the Institute for Higher Education Policy. There's no legal limit on interest rates on private students loans, and they can go as high as 18 to 20 percent.

Half of borrowers with private loans—which have variable interest rates sometimes higher than 10 percent—are low-income students with salaries below $20,000.

Many of the statistics in this story were originally cited in Tamara Draut's 2005 book, Strapped: Why America's 20- and 30-Somethings Can't Get Ahead.

Last week The Wall Street Journal reported the Bush administration was using U.S. Treasury funds to buoy the unstable student loan market. The move comes on the heels of several private lenders' decision to withdraw from a federal student-loan program because of diminishing profits.