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Who Has Student Loan Debt in America?

Student borrowers rally near the White House to tell President Biden to cancel student debt.  (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)
Student borrowers rally near the White House to tell President Biden to cancel student debt. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

Millions of Americans rely on the federal government to cover the cost of college. Student loans have been around for generations, but borrowing has only really taken off in the past two decades.

Soaring college costs, rising enrollment, changes to the federal loan system, labor market demand for degrees, and paltry wage growth have all contributed to the outstanding federal student debt. of $1.6 trillion. This does not include debt issued in the private market. The federal loan system, the source of the vast majority of student loans, is complex. There are many moving parts and many people whose lives have been affected.

Public awareness of education debt is high amid debates over loan forgiveness. Critics of broad executive order cancellation say the policy would disproportionately benefit elites, while proponents say the student loan burden is far more nuanced.

This is how the debt collapses.

White House officials weigh income limits for student loan forgiveness

How is the debt broken down?


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

On 13% of federal student debt is held in loans of $20,000 or less…

…but 53% of borrowers owe less than $20,000

33% of borrowers have $10,000 or less left on their loans

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

On 13% of federal student debt is held in loans of $20,000 or less…

…but 53% of borrowers owe less than $20,000

33% of borrowers have $10,000 or less left on their loans

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

On 13% of federal student debt is held in the form of loans with $20,000 or less still owing…

…but 53% of borrowers owe less than $20,000

About 1 in 5 Americans have student loans. More than half of those 45 million people with federal student loans have $20,000 or less to pay, and about a third of all borrowers owe 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 repay their loans, sometimes because they didn’t graduate. Conversely, people with the highest loan balances are often up to date with their payments, likely due to their higher level of education and associated earning capacity, according to the Federal Reserve.

These higher balances represent nearly 40% of the $1.6 trillion in outstanding federal student loans. Borrowing for graduate programs was a key driver of federal loan growth. While borrowing for undergraduate degrees decreased by $15 billion between the 2010-2011 and 2017-2018 academic year, it increased by $2.3 billion for graduate programs during this period, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.


Percentage of Americans in each age group who should:

18-24 years old: 24% have student debt

Percentage of Americans in each age group who should:

18-24 years old: 24% have student debt

Percentage of Americans in each age group who should:

76% have no student debt

Student debt is most prevalent among Americans between the ages of 25 and 34. Sixty-seven percent of student borrowers are under 40, according to the New York Federal Reserve, but only 57 percent of balances are owed by those under 40. In other words, people with larger balances are more likely to be older, possibly due to borrowing for higher education.

Breaking loan burden ‘feels like a raise’ for black women

According to the most recent data from the Federal Reserve, among the fastest growing categories of student borrowers over the past two decades are black students and seniors age 50 and older. The median income of households with student loans is $76,400 and 7% 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 people who attended private schools. Of these private schools, for-profit colleges account for 17% of the debt while private, not-for-profit universities account for another 34%.

According to the Federal Reserve, people who attended for-profit colleges were more likely to have trouble repaying their loans than those who didn’t. Fed economists say the high costs and low returns of for-profit enrollment are leading to worsening student debt and repayment outcomes. They found that more than a quarter of borrowers who attended for-profit schools were in arrears, compared with 10% who attended public schools and 5% who attended private, nonprofit schools.


Average federal student debt per borrower, in thousands of dollars

Average federal student debt per borrower, in

thousands of dollars

Average federal student debt per borrower in thousands of dollars

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

Some states with high debt balances have a high proportion of residents with college degrees. The Washington metropolitan area, for example, is one of the most educated areas in the country. The district has the highest percentage of residents with college degrees, while Maryland ranks third, according to Census Bureau data.

Average indebtedness may also be a consequence of state investment in higher education. States that prioritize funding for public colleges and universities, such as California and New York, have relatively lower average debt per borrower, despite having some of the highest numbers of people with student loans.

Nick Moutoupalas contributed to this report.

The charts use data from the Federal Student Loan Portfoliopublished by the Ministry of Education.


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