Being "upside-down" means owing more on your house or car than it's worth.
Right now, Patricia Summers is upside-down on her college degree.
She owes $18,000 on loans she took to get a degree in advertising from the University of Missouri. Her time in college will cost more than $50,000, not counting what she could have earned from a full-time job had she not gone to school.
But that job probably would have been a dead-end, low-paying service job, advocates of higher education contend.
Which is exactly what Summers is doing now: serving burgers at a Sonic drive-in.
The recession is recalibrating the economics of higher education.
"Whether college is worth it depends on how much you pay for it," said Kevin Carey, the policy director at Education Sector, a Washington-based education think tank. "It's not worth much if you pay too much for a degree that has no value in the market or one that pays too little to pay back what you borrowed."
College costs are rising fast, as are student debt loads. Take Aaron McNally, 29, who last year received a master's degree in English from the University of Northern Iowa, adding to what eventually became about $50,000 in debt. That's more than the national average — $40,208 — for a master's.
On the other end of the four-year slog, salaries are sputtering — if you get the job in your chosen field. Not finding a public-relations post, McNally took a job as an assistant manager at an Independence grocery store.
Bigger investment. Disappointing returns. Yet college is still the only way to go, right?
Well, don't ask Bill Gates of Microsoft, Steve Jobs of Apple, Michael Dell of Dell, Larry Ellison of Oracle or Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook.
They all dropped out.
Clearly college is not for everyone, but statistics and studies show a college degree usually translates to a higher income.
"People with high levels of education make more money on average," Carey said. But he warned that whether a diploma means more income or a better life depends on the individual.
"A college education is no guarantee."
With money scarce, many newly cost-conscious families are trying to work out the math:
They swallow hard when they realize that, based on the current estimated cost of tuition, room and board, four years at Harvard costs $188,860. Even the $60,236 four-year cost for an in-state student at the University of Kansas can be daunting.
The average student debt after four years is $22,656.
A bachelor's degree doesn't earn what it used to. "After adjusting for inflation, the earnings of male college graduates are no higher than they were in the early 1970s, and the earnings of female college graduates have increased only moderately," according to a College Board study of educational benefits.
Fewer than 1 in 5 students in the class of 2009 had a job at graduation.
That gets us back to that Sonic in Columbia. Summers, who graduated last year, is searching for a job in her field while also working at the MU bookstore. She thinks college was worth it.
"I learned a lot of skills I couldn't have gotten if I hadn't gone to college."
But Summers said that if a decent job did not come along soon, her feelings about the value of her degree could change.
Michael McDaniel, 23, who graduated from Friends University in Wichita last spring with a degree in English literature, also has no regrets about spending time and money getting a college degree, even though it hasn't led to a job in his field.
"If I didn't think it was valuable, I wouldn't have done it," he said.
McDaniel said that some day he would like to teach and write. Meanwhile, he works at Watermark Books & Cafe while applying to graduate schools.
McDaniel figures he'll need to pay off about $40,000 in loans by the time he's finished with graduate school.
"I'm worried, but at the same time I'm action-oriented, so I feel like if there's a will, there's a way," he said.
McDaniel has kept busy. After graduating from Friends, he went to Denver and worked at a chocolate factory, a job he hated. He also worked with a friend running a small business making journals and photo albums out of old books. Back in Wichita, in addition to selling books at Watermark, he tours with rock bands, giving readings from his own writings.
"It's just about getting things done, as opposed to sitting and wondering what I'm going to do," McDaniel said.
"The economy is fluid. It'll change, "he said.
Working with McDaniel at Watermark is Alexis Elder, 21, who graduated in December from Clemson University with a degree in English literature and a minor in horticulture.
Elder, who has moved back in with her parents, said she would love to start her own business some day, "but that's definitely not an option right now," she said.
"I guess it's just kind of making ends meet for a long time at this point," Elder said.
She has looked for work in jobs related to horticulture, but those employers aren't hiring now.
"They love that I'm right out of college and I'm excited about it, but they can't afford me," Elder said.
Although many students are "upside-down" for the moment, a college degree isn't really comparable with a Florida condo mortgage, experts said. There are many nonmonetary intangibles that come with college.
Studies indicate that college graduates are healthier, donate more blood, vote more often than other Americans, and are more open-minded. They smoke less, exercise more and, a 2005 Pew study found, were 25 percent more likely than high school graduates to declare they were happy.
Would such people, with their ambition and discipline, succeed anyway?
Studies have tried to get a fix on what more schooling adds. Some studies looked at twins and found the better-educated sibling fared better.
And the Census Bureau offers these after-tax median incomes of people 25 years or older in 2008: High school degree, nearly $33,800; some college, but no degree, nearly $39,700; bachelor's degree, $55,600.
The salary gap between high school and college degrees is growing.
$1 million difference?
Educators and politicians — President Obama included — say loudly and frequently that everyone should seek some college. In speech after speech, you hear that college graduates make at least $1 million more in their lifetimes than those who quit after high school.
But is it true?
In 2007, Sandy Baum, a professor of economics at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., studied the value of a degree for the College Board. Her research — which factored for inflation and left out advanced degrees and their higher earning power — found that someone with a Bachelor of Arts degree plus 40 years of earnings came closer to earning $550,000 more, on average, in today's dollars.
Baum said that college was easily worth the cost. Plus the recession has laid bare another factor to consider:
"Even in this economy, the number of unemployed college graduates is half that of the unemployed who did not go to college," she said.
Another, even grimmer, way to look at it: The poverty rate is 10.8 percent among high school grads. It is one-third less for those with bachelor's degrees.
Is it just the recession that is devaluing a bachelor's degree, or is it a longer-term question of supply and demand?
The percentage of college-educated people in the U.S. population is growing. In 2008, 29 percent of adults 25 and older had bachelor's degrees, a 5 percent increase from 1998.
Now comes the freshman wave of 2009, the largest in history for many colleges and universities. Less-expensive community colleges are filled to bursting.
Some of that is because of ambition, some because of population growth. Some people are going to college to be retrained. Others see the classroom as a place to wait out the economic storm.
So the competition among bachelor's degree holders is tougher than ever. Time to juice the resume with a master's degree, right?
Not necessarily. Although the 2008 median earnings for someone with a master's degree was $67,300, an increase of more than $10,000 over the bachelor's, there is more variation in the price-cost analysis. A master's degree can mean extra skill or sophistication, but if it's not in the right area, it can end up being irrelevant.