Greetings, members of the class of 2006. This spring, hundreds of thousands of you across the country are earning an esteemed educational and career credential: a college degree.

For many of you, these past four or more years were an experience you won‚t soon forget. Your student-loan creditors will make sure of that.

Debt is the price of a college diploma for a growing number of students. More students are borrowing than 15 years ago, and they‚re borrowing more, even after factoring out inflation. College costs and student debt have risen considerably faster than the overall cost of living. And faster than incomes of recent graduates like you.

Its no wonder that some waggish activists have taken to calling college graduation a „commencement of debt.‰

Nearly two-thirds of students borrow for bachelor‚s degrees, and their average debt is more than $15,000, according to separate analyses by two major higher education groups, the American Council on Education and the College Board. Other studies peg the average debt around $19,000.

To be sure, many students and families have struggled to pay for college through the years. But several analysts say college is becoming more of a financial stretch, while at the same time becoming more of a career necessity than a privilege.

College costs have shot up in the past decade, including costs at public universities, where states generally chip in to keep tuition down for their residents.

Other college expenses also have jumped: Textbook prices alone have roughly tripled in the past 20 years, federal analysts say.

Government grants and other scholarships help many students pay the tab. But overall, cash is a shrinking share of college aid, and loans are a growing one, according to the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

„Colleges are becoming less affordable, on average, to the typical American,‰ says Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economics professor, a member of the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education and the author of Going Broke By Degree: Why College Costs Too Much. „That doesn‚t mean the typical American can‚t afford to go to college anymore ... but it does mean that it‚s becoming more of a strain.‰