Photo: Sebastian Gollnow/Getty

America's massive student debt problem is slowly getting better, but thousands who took on big loans then never graduated have little chance of escaping the morass.

The big picture: These individuals are at an impasse — many want to graduate so they can qualify for higher-paying jobs and pay down debt, but they can't go back to school until they pay off existing loans.

By the numbers: The Institute for College Access and Success, a non-profit advocacy group, did an analysis of all U.S. undergraduates who started college in 2003 or 2004.

  • 11% of them dropped out with debt
  • 42% of these attended for-profit colleges, and 47% public universities
  • And 23% of them are African-American; that compares with 14% of all American students who are African-American.

Overall, the nationwide student debt burden is beginning to shrink as a proportion of household income, reports Axios' Felix Salmon. And for the first time since the 1980s, tuition inflation is lower than the rise in consumer prices.

  • Some good news: Americans who accrue the most student debt tend to be doctors, lawyers and other professionals — those most likely to be able to pay it off.
  • Yes, but: For those who don't complete college, even relatively small debt, like $5,000, can be insurmountable, says Diane Cheng, a researcher at TICAS.

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