Who Has Student Loan Debt in America? – The Washington Post | Vette Leader

Student loan borrowers gather near the White House to tell President Biden to forgive student debt.  (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)
Student loan borrowers gather near the White House to tell President Biden to forgive student debt. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)
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Millions of Americans rely on the federal government to pay for college. Education loans have been around for generations, but lending has really picked up speed in the last two decades.

Rising college costs, higher enrollment, changes to the federal credit system, job market demand for credentials, and meager wage growth have all contributed to the $1.6 trillion in outstanding federal student debt. Debt originating from the private market is not included here. The federal credit system, from which the vast majority of student loans originate, is complex. There are many moving parts and many people whose lives it has touched.

Public awareness of educational debt is high amid debates over loan forgiveness. Critics of a broad presidential decree cancellation say the policy would disproportionately benefit elites, while proponents say the strain on student loans is far more nuanced.

Here’s how the debt shakes.

White House officials are weighing income limits for student loan forgiveness

How is the debt made up?


Most student debt is held in large loans, but most borrowers have small loans.

Around 13% of the state’s student debt is held in loans of $20,000 or less…

…but 53% the borrower owes less than $20,000

33% the borrower have $10,000 or less left behind on their loans

Most student debt is held in large loans, but most borrowers have small loans.

Around 13% of the state’s student debt is held in loans of $20,000 or less…

…but 53% the borrower owes less than $20,000

33% the borrower have $10,000 or less left behind on their loans

Most student debt is held in large loans, but most borrowers have small loans.

Around 13% of federal student debt is held in loans with $20,000 or less still owed…

…but 53% the borrower owes less than $20,000

About 1 in 5 Americans holds student loans. More than half of those 45 million people on federal student loans owe $20,000 or less, with about a third of all borrowers owing less than $10,000. Seven percent of people with federal debt owe more than $100,000.

Federal Reserve economists say borrowers with the least debt often struggle to pay off their loans, sometimes because they don’t have a college degree. Conversely, according to the Federal Reserve, people with the highest loan balances are often up to date with their payments, likely reflecting their higher levels of education and associated earning power.

These higher balances account for nearly 40 percent of the $1.6 trillion in outstanding government student loans. Borrowing for graduate programs has been a major driver of federal lending growth. While undergraduate degree borrowing fell by $15 billion from the 2010-11 academic year to 2017-18, it increased by $2.3 billion for graduate programs over that period, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.


Percent of Americans in each age group who owe:

Age 18-24: 24% have student debt

Percent of Americans in each age group who owe:

Age 18-24: 24% have student debt

Percent of Americans in each age group who owe:

76% have no student debt

Student debt is most prevalent among Americans ages 25 to 34. According to the New York Federal Reserve, 67 percent of student loan borrowers are under 40, but only 57 percent of balances are owed by those under 40. In other words, people with higher net worth are more likely to be older, likely due to borrowing for graduate school.

For black women, taking a break from the burden of credit ‘feels like a raise’

The fastest-growing categories of student loan borrowers over the past two decades include black students and people age 50 and older, according to the latest Federal Reserve data. The median income of student loan households is $76,400, and 7 percent of borrowers live below the poverty line.

Although the majority of college students attend public two- and four-year institutions, about half of outstanding student debt is held by those who attended private schools. Among these private schools, for-profit colleges account for 17 percent of the debt, while private non-profit universities account for another 34 percent.

According to the Federal Reserve, people who attended for-profit colleges were more likely to have difficulty paying off their loans than others. Fed economists say high costs and low returns from for-profit enrollment lead to poorer student debt and repayment outcomes. They found that more than a quarter of borrowers who attended nonprofit schools were in arrears on payments, compared with 10 percent who attended public institutions and 5 percent who attended private nonprofit institutions.


Average government student debt per borrower, in thousands of dollars

Average government student debt per borrower, in

thousands of dollars

Average government student debt per borrower in thousands of dollars

Americans across the country are counted among the borrowers for student loans, but there are a few areas who have a concentration of people with high balances. Washington, DC takes the top spot with an average student debt per borrower of $55,000, followed by Maryland at $43,000 and Georgia at $42,000.

Some states with high debt levels have a high proportion of residents with college degrees. Metropolitan Washington, for example, is one of the most educated regions in the country. According to Census Bureau data, the district has the highest percentage of residents with advanced degrees, while Maryland has the third highest.

The average debt burden may also be a result of government investment in higher education. States that prioritize funding for public colleges and universities, like California and New York, have relatively lower average debt per borrower, despite being among the most densely populated with student loans.

Nick Mourtoupalas contributed to this report.

Graphics use data from the Federal student loan portfoliopublished by the Ministry of Education.

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