Student loan payments are a huge burden on many young professionals. Despite recent efforts to help reduce education debt, it’s hard for most people in the United States to remember how we got to this place.

Student debt isn’t really normal, is it?

But just in time for the start of the academic year Origins, a publication of Ohio State University, this month features a fascinating article by Lawrence Bowdish about the history and current status of American student loans. As Bowdish explains:

Despite the social and economic importance of a university education, the U.S. federal government—unlike many other parts of the developed world—has not attempted to make university affordable by stepping in to control costs. Instead, they have focused on offering assistance to pay whatever those costs might be.

As larger numbers of people enrolled in colleges, the consumer credit market also grew and more people became comfortable using credit. However, without much precedent for lending to young adults with no collateral, most private lenders in the credit market were slow to enter the student loan market. They did so only after the federal government set up frameworks and guarantees to protect them. In this way, credit became a principal way students paid for college.

Before World War II most Americans didn’t attend, or even think of attending, college. Until 1950, less than 5 percent of adults had bachelor’s degrees. Today it’s almost 30 percent. But despite rising incomes, virtually all of this increase in bachelor’s degrees came from debt, debt guaranteed by the federal government.

And not only do more people get loans to pay for college, they also get bigger loans. As the article explains, “the level of student loan debt per graduate grew from $6,449 in 1993, to $15,375 in 2000, to $21,000 in 2008.”

Student loans, of course, help students pay for college. But they don’t help students pay for college very easily. As Bowdish puts it, the 18 million university students “all assume—by and large correctly—that the benefits they will receive from attending college, be they economic, social, or cultural, will outweigh the costs.” The problem, however, is that the cost is now borne by students over 20 or 30 years.

Is it “worth it”? Well sure it is. But students, and the country, would be a whole hell of a lot better off if no one needed to make that sort of calculation.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer