25 startling facts about the state of student debt in America

Written by:
August 15, 2019
ROBYN BECK/AFP // Getty Images

25 startling facts about the state of student debt in America

Student debt in America is a major source of stress for millions of borrowers and countless prospective students. The mounting student debt crisis—about $1.56 trillion dollars in total—is causing graduates to delay major life events like purchasing a home or starting a family, and significantly affecting loan co-signers like parents and grandparents. As the issue worsens, support is increasing for proposals that would overhaul significant elements of the education system and how people pay for college.

Meanwhile, the price of college has more than doubled in 30 years. Some blame systematic disinvestment from state governments, which drives up prices for public colleges. Others blame the luxury amenities universities are increasingly offering to students. In any case, the rapidly rising rate of student loan debt has profound implications for the future of the American worker.

Millennials struggle to deal with their mounting debt levels even after the country's recovery from the Great Recession a decade ago. It’s especially tough for those who dropped out of college without a degree, who face significantly higher default rates than students who got their degrees. Some argue that the student debt crisis isn’t as bad as it seems: Plenty of debt is owed by doctors and lawyers, for example, who are likely to get high-paying jobs and pay loans back. Still, the generational identity of millennials and Generation Z is being shaped by stress related to student loan repayment.

To take a closer look at the student debt crisis, we’ve collected 25 facts about it from polls, financial data, and reputable reporting. These facts will help you understand how quickly debt is rising, why it impacts African American and Hispanic debtors harder than anyone else, and how interested the public is in solutions like cancelling student debt or making public colleges free.

You may also like: 50 best private colleges ranked from least to most expensive

$1.56 trillion in debt

As mentioned earlier, the total amount of student debt in America is $1.56 trillion dollars, a truly mind-blowing sum. If that money was freed up, America’s college grads could spend it on 5.3 million typical American homes, an iPhone for the entire populations of China and the U.K., or 21,000 Pink Star diamonds.

45 million Americans in debt

Of the approximately 250 million American adults, 45 million, or 18%, carry student debt. This burden is especially tough for younger Americans, who face mounting debt without a major increase in salary over time.

$67.8 billion is owed by those 62 and older

Many spend decades paying off their student loans, and some Americans continue to pay them off well into retirement. At this point, the value of their payments surely exceeds their original investments, even at the best interest rates offered by loan companies.

2012: Student loan debt exceeds credit card debt

2012 was the first year in which the total amount of student loan debt in America superseded credit card debt, and the distance between the two has generally expanded over time. In the first quarter of 2012, the total amount of student debt was $904 billion.

The price of college is double what it was 30 years ago

College is getting more expensive, and no one’s completely sure why. In 1988–1989, the cost of attending a four-year public college was $9,480 (adjusted for inflation in 2018 dollars), while in 2018–2019, this cost is $21,370.

Student loans account for 48.6% of all government financial assets

For a short time in 2017, student loans accounted for more than half of all government financial assets, including checkable deposits and currency, mortgages, reserve assets, taxes receivable, etc. Now that number’s back below half, but student loans are still the largest single asset class by a huge amount.

8.9% of student loans have been delinquent for 90 days

For many, the investment of a college degree never pays off. The payments are too burdensome, the job market isn’t strong enough, and the debt keeps piling up: 9.2% of all student loans are in early delinquency (30+ days), while 8.9% are in late delinquency (90+ days).

Students at for-profit colleges have the highest rates of default

Most colleges are public, funded by the state, or private nonprofits, funded by endowments, donations, and tuition dollars. There are also private, for-profit colleges, however, like the University of Phoenix and thousands of others across the country. Students at these for-profit colleges face the highest default rates on their loans by far, around 40% compared to about 20% for public four-year schools; only two-year community colleges come close at about 36%.

Declaring bankruptcy doesn't erase student loans

Except in rare cases, it’s impossible to discharge student loans by declaring bankruptcy. That is not the case with similar kinds of debt, like credit card and mortgage debt.

74% of Gen Z students worry about tuition and living expenses

The cost of tuition is the second-most-stressful thing about college, according to a recent survey by TD Ameritrade. Getting good grades takes the cake, since 80% of students report stress over their report cards.

1-in-5 millennials are worried about paying off their debt past age 50

Student loans can be a source of lifelong stress for some, and many millennials are worried about paying off their loans for decades, which delays their plans for vacations, homeownership, having children—the typical markers of middle-class life in America.

3-in-4 millennials work a part-time job in college

According to the TD Ameritrade survey, 74% of Millennials report working a part-time job in college to make some money towards paying tuition and living expenses. That number is up a full 25% from just 2017.

206 of 41,000 public service workers got debt forgiveness in 2018

Forty-one thousand public workers applied for debt forgiveness from the federal government in 2018, and just 206 applications were approved. That’s a success rate of about .5%.

79% of parents are stressed about getting paid back

Seventy-nine percent of parents surveyed by TD Ameritrade reported they were “somewhat” or “very” stressed about their child paying them back for college, showing the burden of student debt doesn’t just fall on the graduates themselves.

27% of Gen Z students are paying for college on their own

The average Gen Z student (aged 15-21) is paying for half of their college education, and 27% of students are paying for it completely on their own. Many report that they’re trying to avoid the debt by taking online classes, introductory classes at a community college, or completing a two-year degree instead.

One simple plan: make everything free

Bernie Sanders, who’s among the candidates for the Democratic nomination for the 2020 presidential race, has proposed a plan to cancel all $1.56 trillion in debt facing Americans and making public colleges and universities completely free. The program would be funded by a tax on buying and selling stocks, bonds, and derivatives, which specifically targets Wall Street speculation.

45% of Americans favor free public colleges

Despite the dire state of the student-loan crisis, a minority of American voters support making college free: 45% with 52% against, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll. This is tough news for Bernie Sanders and the other Democratic candidates running on free public colleges.

57% of voters support debt forgiveness for those making below $250,000

However, there is a proposal with more popular support, according to that same Quinnipiac University poll: creating a debt forgiveness program for those with total income below $250,000, for up to $50,000 in college debt. This is like Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan, which offers $50,000 in forgiveness for those with income below $100,000, and less and less forgiveness until those with incomes of $250,000 or higher.

The racial gap in college debt is significant

Eighty-five percent of African-Americans with Bachelor’s degrees carry student loan debt, compared to 69% of white students with the same degree, and also owe around $4,000 more on average. This reflects the racial wealth gap in the country; the median average white family has around $154,000 more in net wealth than the median African-American family.

With more debt comes more delinquency

African-American and Hispanic debtors are more likely to be behind on their payments than white debtors, and also less likely to have paid them off. Twenty percent of African-American non-Hispanic graduates are behind on their loans compared to 6% of white non-Hispanic graduates.

The delinquency rate for student loans is much higher than for other types of debt

The delinquency rate for student loans is around six times as high as the same rate for mortgages, according to Credit.com. It’s also far greater than auto and credit card debt, showing the increasing unsustainability of debt levels for graduates with debt.

Dropping out exacerbates the problem

Those who have dropped out of an associate’s or bachelor’s program have higher delinquency rates than those who received their degree. If a student drops out because of extenuating personal circumstances, the debt load is another crushing blow to deal with.

The number of 23-to-25-year-olds living with parents is skyrocketing

As graduates deal with mounting debt, plans for homeownership and other major life goals are put off. That’s why around 45% of 23-to-25-year-olds live with their parents instead of moving out, up from around 33% in 2004.

Only half of bachelor’s-degree recipients think it was worth it

According to a survey by Pew Research, “...about half (51%) of those ages 25 to 39 with at least a bachelor’s degree and outstanding student loan debt say that the lifetime financial benefits of their degree outweigh the costs.” It’s no wonder that free college polls much better with young folks than with their grandparents.

The White House proposed to cap the amount students can borrow

Back in March, the Trump administration proposed changes to the Higher Education Act being reauthorized by Congress. Among those changes: Consolidating repayment options and capping the amount that students can borrow, dividing experts on whether the change will help the student debt crisis.

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