How we got to $1 trillion in debt: An illustrated history of student loans in America

Most of us are familiar — some 40 million of us, intimately — with the concept of student loans.

With student debt recently hitting a record $1.31 trillion and policy makers and educators searching for ways to clamp down on the rising cost of college, it’s a topic that’s hard to avoid. But for the vast majority of the history of higher education, credit, particularly from the government, wasn’t available specifically for students to pay for college.

Beginning in the Middle Ages, officials at some of the most prominent European colleges started to see the need for poorer students to find a way to finance their education, so they set up chests where students placed valuables, mostly books, as collateral to afford their school fees, according to Jenny Adams, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, who has studied the chests.

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