The government began offering loans to all college students regardless of income in 1992. At the same time, it let parents borrow up to the cost of attendance minus any financial aid. Congress endorsed almost unlimited borrowing for graduate students in 2006, the same year it let federal grants and loans be used for online programs, especially at for-profit schools targeting working adults.
As borrowing soared, university presidents began a multibillion-dollar building boom across campuses, featuring private dorm rooms and network TV-ready football fields. Colleges themselves went into debt to pay for these extras. By the end of 2011, more than 500 colleges and universities rated by Moody's Investors Service had $211 billion of outstanding debt, compared with $91 billion in 2002.
"The tendency of the colleges and universities at the undergraduate or the graduate level is to charge as much as they can, and continue to build and expand," William Bennett, education secretary under Reagan, said in an interview.
Federal loans have enabled the number of college-goers to more than triple, to 21.6 million in 2010 from 5.9 million in 1965, Education Department data shows. The average debt held by members of the class of 2010 was $25,000, according to a report by The Institute for College Access & Success in Oakland, California.
For most graduates, that level of debt is manageable, said Sarah Flanagan, a lobbyist for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents more than 1,000 private, nonprofit schools.
Yet, a survey last year by the Washington-based Pew Research Center found that more than half of U.S. adults said higher education failed to provide "good value" for the money, three-quarters said it was unaffordable for most Americans and almost half said the loans made it harder to pay other bills.
Some scholars are coming to a conclusion that shakes at the core of a long-held belief: College may not be for everyone.
The "college for all" movement focuses too much on helping students pursue four-year degrees when two-year and other programs may better prepare them for the workforce, according to a 2011 Harvard University report.
"Mindlessly drifting into college, believing that anything they study for however many years is going to be worth going into debt for — that's what is getting far too many young people into deep trouble," Robert Schwartz, academic dean at Harvard's education school, said in an interview.
The choices were easier for Geraldine Brezler, now 64. In addition to paying off her $5,000 student loan in less than three years in the early 1970s, she earned enough as a nurse to pay the $6,000 down payment on the family's first home in Akron, Ohio, while her husband began his medical career.
"When I borrowed for college, it was more like getting a car loan," she said. Regarding her three kids, who all have master's degrees, "the amount of money that they borrowed is more like a down payment on a house," she said.
The modern student-loan program was born in 1965, part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. In a November ceremony at Southwest Texas State College, his alma mater, Johnson signed the bill authorizing the initiative, saying it would "swing open a new door for the young people of America."
"Education is no longer a luxury," Johnson said. "Education in this day and age is a necessity."
Under the program, the government would guarantee loans made to students by banks or private lenders and would pick up the interest while students were in college. Borrowers would start paying back one year after graduation. In 2010, under Obama, the Education Department started making all new loans directly, eliminating the role of private lenders — a decision Romney wants to reverse.
In the 1964-1965 academic year, it cost $1,560 on average to attend a public college, according to a 1965 speech to Congress by late U.S. Representative Carl Perkins, a Democrat from Kentucky.