MINOT, N.D. — This year total student loan debt in America hit $1.6 trillion.

That figure has increased by 233% since 2006.

That fact alone is an indictment of our current higher education policies. Armies of politicians spend mountains of taxpayer dollars on policies aiming to make higher education more accessible and more affordable.

Meanwhile, our collective debt pile only gets larger.

It gets worse.

A significant number of people carrying that debt don't even have the earning power of a high school graduate.

I write this in the context of a new report from Third Way, a think tank based in Washington, D.C. They found that more than half of America's institutions of higher education left a majority of their students earning no more than $28,000 per year six years after enrollment.

That dollar figure is the average for a worker with only a high school diploma. It's a paltry sum given the cost of higher education in terms of both time and money.

The report uses data from the U.S. Department of Education, and the closer we look at the numbers, the uglier things get.

Eight years after enrollment, over 37% of institutions saw a majority of their students failing to hit that earning threshold.

Even measuring a decade after enrollment, the percentage is nearly 29%.

In my experience, when the conversation turns to the value of a degree, there is a faction who say earning potential is not the end goal of education.

Attending college can be an illuminating life experience, a time to grow and mature, and those things have value too.

I agree, but how many Americans can afford to spend years of their life accumulating tens of thousands of dollars in debt to obtain an illuminating experience with limited earning potential?

Most Americans treat the value of a college degree as something self-evident.

What if that is a mistake?

What if the value of a college degree, at least in the status quo, is not as high as we assumed?

The marketing departments for the universities message endlessly about the earning power of college degrees.

This year in North Dakota, roughly $1.5 billion in combined taxpayer appropriations and tuition/fees paid by students will be spent on higher education based on the premise that it is an investment in our state's prosperity.

Are we confident that the premise is true?

Or, at least, as true as we think it is?

We should be doing more to track student achievement and prosperity post-matriculation.

Currently, we tend to rate the performance of college based on metrics like enrollment and graduation rates. We don't spend nearly enough time measuring how useful the degrees are to the people who paid for the opportunity to earn them.

From there, we can perhaps make better decisions about which institutions students should be attending, or even if they should be attending one at all.

Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Plain Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.