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Statistics about student loan debt make for frightening headlines, and it’s no wonder — there are plenty of big numbers to throw around:

  • Two-thirds of students who earned a four-year degree in 2017 borrowed for college, and the average student loan debt at graduation among those who borrowed was $28,500.
  • Americans owed $1.56 trillion in student loan debt as of November 2018 — more than double what they owed just a decade ago.
  • There were 42.2 million borrowers with federal student loan debt in mid-2018 and more than 2.7 million of those people owed $100,000 or more.

Quick navigation:
Average student loan debt
Average student loan debt for recent graduates
Average family student loan debt
Average student loan monthly payment
Average federal student loan interest rates
Average private student loan rates
Total student loan debt

News headlines can leave us with the impression that student loan debt is growing rapidly, threatening to reach crisis levels, and that more students than ever are deep in debt. But too often there’s not enough context provided with these numbers.

Population growth and inflation, for example, can explain some of the increase in total student loan debt. If you take inflation into account, annual student loan borrowing actually peaked at $127.7 billion in 2010-11, and has been declining for seven years in a row.

And while 2.7 million people owe $100,000 or more in student loan debt, most are high earners with graduate degrees who are paying back their loans. The borrowers who are most likely to struggle to repay their loans typically have much smaller levels of debt.

Borrowers who owe less than $10,000 account for two-thirds of defaults that occur in the first three years of repayment, while borrowers with more than $40,000 in student loan debt account for just 4% of defaults.

That’s because many students who take out smaller loans don’t finish their degrees or obtain degrees that don’t do much to boost their earning potential.

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What is the average student loan debt?

When it comes to average student loan debt, there are some conflicting numbers.

Keep in mind that some estimates of average student loan debt are for recent graduates of four-year schools. Others look at graduate school debt. Still others take in all borrowers, including people who are still in school and those who have been paying down their loans for years.

You might also be interested in breaking down average student loan debt for graduates of public universities versus private schools, or nonprofit versus for-profit schools.

If you’re curious about average debt for graduates of a particular school, you can use tools like College Scorecard.

But if you’re looking for big-picture statistics on average student loan debt, here are some of the most reliable sources.

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Average student loan debt for recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees

According to an annual survey of thousands of colleges by the College Board, 59% of students earning bachelor’s degrees in 2017 borrowed for school, graduating with $28,500 in debt, on average.

As the chart below shows, that’s a 24% increase from 2003, even after adjusting for inflation. Among those who borrowed to get their degree from public colleges, the average debt burden was $26,900. Students who borrowed to attend nonprofit private schools took on $32,600 in debt in the course of earning their degree, on average.

The College Board’s estimates for average student loan debt at graduation are similar to those reported by the Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), which analyzes data collected by Peterson’s Undergraduate Financial Aid Survey.

The College Board and TICAS don’t try to analyze borrowing by students graduating from for-profit schools, because not many are willing to disclose that information.

But according to a Department of Education survey of 2016 graduates, 83.1% of students earning bachelor’s degrees from private, for-profit schools borrowed to get their degree, taking out $39,900 in loans, on average.

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Average family student loan debt

What if we want to know about the average student loan debt of families? Here, we’re looking at all borrowers in a household — including those who may have been paying down student debt for years. The Federal Reserve’s long-running Survey of Consumer Finances, which is conducted every three years, provides some good insights into family student loan debt.

This survey shows it’s much more common for families to have educational debt today than it was a generation ago. More than one in five (22.4%) families reported having educational debt in 2016, compared to less than one in 10 (8.9%) in 1989.

Families that have educational debt also owe more than used to be the case. In 2016, families that were paying down student loans owed $34,200, on average. That’s a six-fold increase from the $5,400 average reported in 1989. But the increase is not quite as dramatic after adjusting for inflation. Families owed $10,100 in inflation-adjusted dollars in 1989, so the real increase is closer to three times than six.

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Average student loan monthly payment

The average monthly payment for student loan borrowers depends not only on the amount they owe, but their interest rate and how many years they will take to repay their debt.

Although the standard repayment term for federal student loans is 10 years, extended and income-driven repayment plans allow borrowers to stretch out their payments for as long as 20 or 25 years. Although these repayment plans can ease the burden of monthly student loan payments, they can also dramatically increase total repayment costs.

Not everyone with student loans is making monthly payments. Some are still enrolled in school, and others have been granted deferment or forbearance. Still others are in default.

The Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances found 38% of borrowers with student loans had one or more loans in deferment. But among those who are making payments on one or more loans, the average monthly payment was $393, and the median payment was $222.

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Average federal student loan interest rates

Rates on federal student loans to new borrowers are adjusted once a year, on July 1, so that they reflect the government’s cost of borrowing. That means students can expect to pay different rates on the loans they take out each academic year.

There are three different “tiers” of interest rates. From 2006 to 2018, average federal student loan interest rates were:

  • 4.81% for undergraduates
  • 6.38% for graduate students
  • 7.44% for parents and graduate students taking out PLUS loans

The chart below shows that rates for federal student loans to new borrowers were below average in recent years, but have increased for two years in a row.

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Average private student loan interest rates

Average interest rates for borrowers that used Credible to find private student loans between June 2017 and May 2018 were:

  • 6.17% for borrowers taking out 5-year variable-rate loans with a cosigner and beginning repayment immediately
  • 7.64% for borrowers taking out 10-year fixed-rate loans with a cosigner and beginning repayment immediately

The interest rates offered by private lenders depend on the borrower’s (or cosigner’s) creditworthiness. So some borrowers are able to qualify for rates that are lower than the averages listed above, while others will pay more.

Having a cosigner can help borrowers get a significantly lower their average student loan interest rate. An analysis of rate requests submitted to the Credible marketplace found that adding a cosigner reduced the lowest prequalified interest rate by 2.36 percentage points.

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Total student loan debt

This is one of the scariest student loan debt statistics out there: Americans owe $1.56 trillion in student loan debt, up from $481 billion in 2006.

Keep in mind there are several reasons that chart looks so ominous. Although borrowing by individuals has slowed, the cumulative number of people going to college (and paying back loans) keeps going up.

To help students and their families get a better grasp of the numbers, we’ve provided the sources for all the numbers we cite to help anyone from journalists to students.

All of the charts in this article are free for you to share or embed on your own website, blog, or research paper.

Other articles in this series will take deep dives into the average cost of college, average graduate school debt, student loan default rates, and average time to pay off student loans.

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