As a senior in high school, I was president of the honor society, but I didn’t know what I wanted to “do with my life.” I did know I wanted to go to college — everyone did — and I figured I could figure it all out when I got to the University of Florida campus. This was in 1980.

After I arrived in Gainesville, I tried a little of this and a little of that — first computer science, then business, and, finally, when I went with my gifts, journalism. Somehow I managed to cram four years of study into five.

While my generous parents were probably wondering about me, it all worked out without too much financial damage. I had a scholarship that covered much of my costs, Mom and Dad provided a lot, and tuition was somewhere around $32 a credit hour, perhaps less. Even with the extra year, I managed to leave with a debt of only $5,000. Once married and in the workforce, we paid it off in a few short years. My wife’s college debt: $3,000.

Try pulling that off today. The average college student in 2011 graduated with a debt of $25,250, with 10 percent of borrowers owing more than $54,000. The burden has increased substantially in recent years. Responding to seemingly endless federal subsidies, according to the College Board, tuition and fees at public four-year schools have jumped by 25 percent in just the last three years.

This tuition hike is part of a longer trend at most schools. At UF, undergrad tuition was $38.08 a credit hour for in-state students in 1995-96. In 2006-07, it was $73.71, or nearly double. Such rates look positively benign now. Today tuition and fees at the university are about $190 per credit hour. Yet according to U.S.News & World Report, of more than 400 public four-year institutions surveyed for the 2011-12 school year, “the average cost of out-of-state tuition and fees was $17,785 — almost $10,000 less than the average cost among private schools.”

Overall, the student debt load nationally is north of $1 trillion (more than the GNPs of all but the 15 largest economies in the world), which of course fuels the heated election-year rhetoric between the president and Congress about rising interest rates on the federal Stafford student loan program (a minor factor in student debt loads).

Advocates — and there are many — will say that enhanced future earnings prospects for grads more than justify the added expense of a college education. And while that remains true if you get into a lucrative field, it isn’t true across the board.

Michael Bledsoe graduated in 2010 with a degree in creative writing, and employers haven’t exactly been pounding on his door. While he still sends out resumes, for the last two years Bledsoe has been a barista at a coffeehouse in Seattle. “I don't even know what I'm looking for,” he tells the Huffington Post.