Based on estimates by the Federal Reserve, for the first time in U.S. history, student-loan debt ($867 billion) has surpassed credit card debt ($704 billion). These debt levels have real implications for productivity and lifetime earnings for this current generation of graduates. Much has been written about college students dealing with rising tuition, but there's been much less examination of how substantial student-loan debt, coupled with a slumping economy, affects new graduates.

According to a June report by Drexel University's Center for Labor Markets and Policy, even as the overall job market has rebounded in the last two years, employment prospects for college graduates have declined. In an economic environment where young adults under 25 have much higher unemployment rates than the national average, and 85 percent of recent college graduates said they may have to move back in with their parents, seeking higher education is a riskier financial investment than in years past.

For too many college graduates, that investment has not paid off. A 2011 Pew Research Poll found: "A majority of Americans (57 percent) say the higher education system in the United States fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend. An even larger majority — 75 percent — says college is too expensive for most Americans to afford."

President Barack Obama has set an admirable goal for the U.S. to have the highest portion of college graduates (it is currently 16th) in the world by 2020. While I agree with his aspiration, should U.S. students have to go into significant debt to achieve this goal? Higher education institutions, states and the federal government must find ways to minimize the financial risks of going to college or graduate school.

Based on estimates by the American Psychological Association's 2009 Doctorate Employment Survey, graduates with a Psy.D. in clinical psychology reported a median debt level of $120,000, up from $70,000 in 1999. While debt levels have climbed, the median income range for graduates actually decreased ($50,000-$70,000) from what was reported in 2007 ($52,000-$72,000).

The sad reality is that while student-loan debt for current graduate students is expected to soar above the $120,000 mark, wages are expected to remain stagnant. Unfortunately, students rarely consider these factors when making important decision about their careers. We have been trained to believe that higher education is always worth the money, and historically it has been — but we live in a much different world now.

Recent graduates are not only struggling with massive student-loan debt, but they are also facing unemployment and underemployment. A recent CNBC study found that college graduates are, in aggregate, more likely to be employed as waiters, waitresses, bartenders and food-service helpers than as engineers, physicists, chemists and mathematicians combined (100,000 versus 90,000). There were more graduates working in low-level, office-related jobs such as receptionist or payroll clerk than in all computer and professional jobs combined (163,000 versus 100,000). More graduates were employed as cashiers, retail clerks and customer representatives than engineers (125,000 versus 80,000).

With this grim reality, it is no wonder 57 percent of Americans believe the U.S. educational system fails to provide a good value for the money spent. Not many students went to college with the hopes of becoming a waiter.

What message does this send to future students about higher education? What does it say about our prospects of becoming the most educated nation? It used to be that higher education was a ticket to financial security, and given the disappearance of high-paying blue-collar jobs in recent decades, a degree is increasingly a requirement to enter the upper middle class. But it is also much more of a gamble.

As the U.S. tries to reclaim its No. 1, position in the world, students and their families must ask themselves: Do the benefits of higher education outweigh the costs? With student debt levels reaching uncharted territory and a shortage of jobs, the answer to this question may no longer be an obvious yes.

Titus Hamlett, a Baltimore City resident and University of Maryland, College Park graduate, is a clinical psychology Ph.D. student at the California School of Professional Psychology. He served as witness/panelist for a congressional hearing on student loan debt. His email is thamlett@alliant.edu.