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Average student loan debt: A breakdown

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Student loans can make a college education more accessible, but they can also be a heavy burden for graduates (or dropouts) and their families.

The average student loan debt for bachelor’s degree recipients was $29,400 for the 2021-22 school year, according to the College Board. Among all borrowers, the average balance is $38,290, according to mid-2023 data from Experian, one of the three national credit bureaus.

Here’s a breakdown of the average student loan debt for different states, demographics and more, as well as how student loans can impact individual borrowers and the economy as a whole.

Average student loan debt in America

  • As of the third quarter of 2023, Americans owed $1.74 trillion in education debt.
  • 51% of 2021-22 bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with an average of $29,400 in student loan debt.
  • Among all borrowers, the average student loan debt in 2023 was $38,290.
  • 53% of federal student loan borrowers owe $20,000 or less.
  • 47% of the total outstanding federal loan debt is held by 10% of borrowers, who owe $80,000 or more.
  • Just 10% of college graduates took out private student loans in 2021-22, but they had nearly twice as much debt as federal loan borrowers.

Total student loan debt in America reached a record high of $1.73 trillion in the third quarter of 2023, according to the Federal Reserve. While that figure has since dropped slightly, student loans remain a hot-button issue.

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government paused payments and interest accrual for federal loan borrowers in March 2020, with monthly dues resuming in October 2023. During that time, the Biden administration broadened eligibility for existing loan forgiveness programs and introduced other relief options for struggling borrowers, including the SAVE plan. (Some private lenders offered temporary reprieves on private loan repayment but stopped far short of forgiveness.)

As a result of these federal interventions, federal loan balances — which comprise the vast majority of all outstanding education debt — continued to grow but at a much slower rate. In fact, the total debt for the first quarter of 2023 was 6.2% higher than the first quarter of 2020, compared to a 16.1% increase during the previous three-year period.

Average student debt for federal, private loans

For most college students, particularly undergraduates, federal student loans are typically a better choice than private loans (lent by banks, credit unions and other financial institutions). In addition to standardized interest rates that aren’t tied to your creditworthiness, federal loans also offer access to various repayment options and relief programs.

For the 2021-22 academic year, 50% of bachelor’s degree recipients had federal loans, while just 10% had private loans. However, private loan borrowers had nearly twice as much debt, with an average balance of $38,300 compared to $21,200 for federal loan borrowers. Here’s how it breaks down:

Public, four-year schools

Private, nonprofit four-year schools

Education debt balances by state

Washington, D.C. residents have the highest average federal student loan debt at $55,204, while North Dakotans have the lowest, with just $28,037.

Here’s a breakdown of the average student loan debt for each state according to federal data:

Average federal loan debt by demographics

Here’s a breakdown of the average student loan debt by age, education level, gender and race. Note that these figures include only federally-held education debt.

Age of the borrower

The average student loan debt grows with age, according to federal data. Despite making up just 4.2% of total federal loan borrowers, people aged 62 and older have the highest average balance at $48,706.

“The student loan conversation usually centers around younger graduates, but older borrowers face serious challenges too,” said Jeff Rose, an Illinois-based certified financial planner. “Imagine being close to retirement but still saddled with student debt. They have less time to recover financially, which is a real issue.”

Here’s how it breaks down by age group, according to federal data:

Education level

It stands to reason that the longer you remain in school, the more you’ll borrow. But graduate, doctoral and professional degree programs also tend to be more expensive per year.

Here’s a look at the median student loan debt, based on 2022 data analyzed by the Texas Public Policy Foundation:

Gender

Women tend to borrow more for a college education than men, holding nearly two-thirds of the country’s education debt, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW).

Here’s how the 2021 averages break down by gender and race and ethnicity:

Race

Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that Black college graduates have more student loan debt than peers of any other race or ethnicity, followed by Asian, Pacific Islander and multiracial graduates.

Here’s a breakdown for bachelor’s degree recipients in the 2015-16 academic year (the latest available data):

Factors influencing student loan debt

The cost of college

The primary driver of education debt is arguably the high cost of attending college. In particular, average fees and tuition at public four-year universities have more than doubled in the past 30 years, even after accounting for inflation.

Here’s a comparison of the average annual tuition and fees for the 2023-24 school year compared to 1993-94, adjusted for inflation:

Economic factors

While the cost of college accelerated quickly over the past few decades, student loan debt outpaced it. In fact, the total education debt in the U.S. has more than tripled since the Federal Reserve started tracking it in 2006, when Americans ended the year with a total of $521.38 billion in outstanding balances.

The biggest jumps occurred in the aftermath of the Great Recession, which created widespread — and record-high — long-term unemployment that may have made it more challenging for students and their families to cover education costs with other sources.

Here’s a quick summary of how overall education debt has increased since 2006:

Lopsided income growth

While the cost of a four-year public university has more than doubled since 1993, the average wage in America has increased by just 46% during that time, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

What’s more, income growth has disproportionately benefited higher-income families. Between 1992 and 2022, the average income grew by 65% for the top 20% of families, compared to just 27% for the lowest 20% of families, according to the College Board.

As a result, students from low-income families may find it increasingly difficult to get help covering their costs.

The impacts of staggering student loan debt

Student loan debt can have a serious impact on individual borrowers and the broader economy. Here’s a look at some of the latest statistics.

Borrowers’ mental health

In a 2023 study by the University of Georgia, researchers found a link between student loan debt and high levels of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and fear.

And a 2022 survey from ELVTR, an online education program, found that 54% of Americans have faced mental health issues caused by their education debt.

In a report using 2022 data, the Student Loan Protection Center has also linked student loan debt to increased drug usage and suicidal ideation, with 18% of borrowers reporting suicidal thoughts.

“The stigma around debt also means people might not talk about their struggles, making it harder to address these mental health issues,” said Rose. “It’s a heavy burden that affects more than just financial health.”

Borrowers’ financial health

In addition to mental health struggles, student loan borrowers may also experience financial challenges. In particular, 63% of Americans are struggling to afford their federal loan payments, according to ELVTR, and that number is higher for women and Black Americans.

Additionally, 84% of Americans have delayed major life events, such as starting a family, buying a home or car and saving for the future, as a result of their education debt.

According to a September 2023 report from WorkRise, a division of the Urban Institute, student loan debt harms economic mobility for lower-income workers and exacerbates racial wealth inequality.

The broader economy

The impact of student loans on the U.S. economy is widely debated. While economists generally view loan programs for higher education as a way to invest in future workers and maintain competitiveness in a global economy, many believe that ballooning balances have spiraled out of control.

As more and more borrowers struggle to keep up with their monthly payments, individual challenges can add up, creating greater issues for the economy. Here are just a few examples:

  • Burdensome loan payments can reduce consumer spending, which could negatively impact the retail sector.
  • Struggling borrowers may be more at risk of falling behind on other financial obligations, which could hurt the financial services industry.
  • Debtors may be hesitant to start a business, and according to the U.S. Small Business Administration, small businesses are the lifeblood of the economy.

“Additionally, having less money for emergencies or investments can weaken the economy’s overall resilience,” said Rose.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

According to the College Board, students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2022 had an average student loan debt of $29,400.

Due to the increased cost of college and other economic factors, overall education debt has more than tripled since 2006. However, that growth has slowed in recent years, primarily due to coronavirus-related protections for federal loan borrowers.

If you default on your student loans, your lender or loan servicer may send your debt to collections. Not only does this negatively impact your credit scores, but it can also result in additional collection fees.

In some cases, the debt collection agency may opt to sue you for payment. If the court rules in their favor, you could be subject to wage and bank account garnishments, liens on your property and more.

If you’re at risk of defaulting, contact your loan servicer to learn about potential relief options.

Student loan misconceptions include:

  • Everyone uses student loans. Just over half of bachelor’s degree recipients in 2021-22 graduated with education debt.
  • The crisis is a result of out-of-control borrowing. Total annual borrowing peaked in the 2010-11 school year at $152.8 billion (in 2022 dollars) but has steadily declined since then. In the 2022-23 school year, the total was $98.2 billion, a decline of roughly 36%. Direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans, widely used by undergraduate students, dropped by 50% over that same period.
  • You can’t get rid of student loans in bankruptcy. While it’s difficult, there are procedures that allow struggling borrowers to discharge education debt in bankruptcy.

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