WASHINGTON — As the nation amasses more than $1 trillion in student loans, education experts say a vexing new problem has emerged: A growing number of young people have a mountain of debt but no degree to show for it.
Nearly 30 percent of college students who took out loans dropped out of school, up from less than a quarter of students a decade ago, according to an analysis of government data earlier this year by think tank Education Sector. College dropouts are also among the most likely to default on their loans, falling behind at a rate four times that of graduates.
That is raising new questions about the wisdom of decades of public policy that focused on increasing access to higher learning but paid less attention to what happens once students arrive on campus. And some education experts have begun to argue that starting college — and going into debt to pay for it — without a clear plan for a diploma is a recipe for disaster.
‘‘They have the economic burden of the debt but they do not get the benefit of higher income and higher levels of employment that one gets with a college degree,’’ said Jack Remondi, chief operating officer at Sallie Mae, the nation’s largest private student lender.
Barack Obama’s administration says it is trying to address the issue by coupling its goal of ensuring high schoolers are prepared for at least one year of college with new targets for college graduation rates.
The plight of ‘‘noncompleters’’ has grown in magnitude as student debt tops $1 trillion, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In addition, the sputtering economy has forced a growing number of students to make difficult choices between the benefits of a degree and the burden of paying for it. More students are balancing their studies with full- or part-time jobs or signing up for a reduced course load to save money, increasing the likelihood that they will not graduate. According to a 2009 study by Public Agenda, half of college dropouts said work was a major factor in their decision.
‘‘In the end, it’s about money and time,’’ said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University. ‘‘There’s almost a synergy between the two that will knock you out of school.’’
The cost to the economy is roughly half a trillion dollars, he said. Though college dropouts make more than those with only a high school diploma, he said they earn about a million dollars less than college graduates over their careers.
Malainie Smith spent a year at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts before deciding to go to nursing school. She was halfway through her program at Simmons College in Boston when she took what she thought would be a semester-long break. When she tried to return, she found she could no longer get a loan.
Smith said that left her in a Catch-22: She had to quit school but still owed about $100,000 to the Vermont Student Assistance Corp., VSAC, a public nonprofit student lender. Her monthly payments are about $400 a month. Three years after she left Simmons, she is now is a waitress — a recent promotion from her position as a hostess.
‘‘There’s more potential than this,’’ Smith said.
Scott Giles, a vice president at VSAC, said he could not discuss Smith’s situation for privacy reasons. But he said the lender often uses the flexibility of its status as a public nonprofit to help students in need.
‘‘We want all of these people to not only get into school but actually complete,’’ he said. ‘‘We bend over backwards to try and make sure that that’s possible.’’
Still, Giles said part of his organization’s mission is to ensure that students have the chance to go to college, even though it knows that some of them will never finish. The benefits may take a generation to play out: Students whose parents attended at least some college are more likely to enroll themselves, according to his group’s research.
‘‘There are ways in which the access agenda and the completion agenda are at odds,’’ he said. ‘‘Folks have defined failure to obtain a degree as just that — failure. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the resources you put into that student . . . were wasted.’’
College enrollment has swelled by 38 percent during the past decade to more than 20 million, according to government data. But lawmakers and regulators have begun casting a wary eye on institutions with low graduation rates and high student debt loads. The biggest jump in borrowers who drop out was at private for-profit colleges that recently have been accused of predatory lending, though every type of institution saw increases. According to a study by The Education Trust, more than three-quarters of students who enroll in for-profit colleges never finish. At private nonprofit schools, the percentage of students who started college in 2003 and dropped out within six years is 40 percent.
By comparison, only about 8 percent of Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 don’t have a high school degree, according to government data.
‘‘As college became a mass institution in America, it started looking like high school. But unlike high school, we didn’t build a system that was designed to keep people in,’’ Carnevale said. ‘‘If we had a 40 percent dropout rate in high school, we’d think we were in a national crisis.’’
The Obama administration said it has made increasing the college graduation rate by 2020 one of its top educational priorities.
Marian Castelli of Connecticut said her daughter dropped out of the University of Hartford after one year, in part because she was racking up more debt than she thought she could afford. Castelli said she recalled her daughter telling her, ‘‘I don’t think I want to go back to college. I don’t know how I’d ever pay off $80k in debt with a four-year degree.’’
And, Castelli responded, ‘‘I couldn’t argue with that.’’