A look at the (un)employment outcomes of recent high school graduates (PDF) who haven't gone to college makes it easy to see why people take on so much debt to go to college.
(Heldrich Center for Workforce Development)
A survey by the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University finds that just 27 percent of people who graduated high school between 2006 and 2011 and did not go to college full-time have full-time jobs, while 23 percent are working part-time and 44 percent are unemployed. By contrast (PDF), another recent survey by the Heldrich Center found 51 percent of college graduates from the same years currently working full-time and just ("just") 11 percent unemployed.
While many college graduates struggle to find work in the fields they've trained for, or even requiring a college education, they are more likely than high school graduates to find salaried jobs, and are paid more in both salaried and hourly jobs. So while employment and wage statistics for recent college graduates do look bad taken in isolation, there's a way to make them look good: compare them with similar statistics for high school graduates.
This is why college tuition rates and student loan interest rates are so important. If a college degree is decreasingly a guarantee of a middle-class job, it's increasingly a requirement for a job that makes it possible to make ends meet at all. At a bare minimum, we need improved consumer protections for student borrowers. But if the United States is to have any aspirations toward continuing to be a middle-class nation, we need a lot more than that, from truly affordable public higher education (which means increased government investment) to a real jobs bill. Meanwhile, the Beltway policy debate is dominated by Republican arguments that student loan interest rates should be doubled.