You might be worried that taking out student loans for college will leave you saddled with debt well into old age.
Under the Department of Education’s standard repayment plan, it takes 10 years to pay off your student loans. Although many borrowers are able to pull that off by balancing their student loans with their earnings after graduation, the average time to repay student loans depends on many factors: like how much you borrow, where you go to school, whether you get your degree, and how much you earn after leaving school.
- Average time to repay student loans by loan balance
- Average time to repay student loans by educational attainment
- How earnings after college affect student loan repayment rates
- How the amount borrowed affects student loan repayment rates
- How choice of college affects student loan repayment rates
- How many are paying back student loans into retirement
- Tools for taming student loan repayment
Average time to repay student loans by loan balance
If you combine your government student loans into a federal direct consolidation loan, your repayment term will automatically be extended to as long as 30 years.
The chart above shows that if you combine your loans into a federal direct consolidation loan, what your repayment term in the standard repayment plan will be.
- If you owe less than $7,500: 10 years
- If you owe $7,500 to $9,999: 12 years
- If you owe $10,000 to $19,999: 15 years
- If you owe $20,000 to $39,000: 20 years
- If you owe $40,000 to $59,999: 25 years
- If you owe $60,000 or more: 30 years
With the rise of income-driven repayment (IDR) plans that provide loan forgiveness after 20 or 25 years of payments, few borrowers today would choose to take 30 years to pay off their loans.
Although IDR plans can make your monthly payments more affordable, the bad news is that you don’t get an interest rate reduction. So taking longer to pay off your loans can add thousands in interest costs. Another approach to lowering your monthly payment or to pay your loans off faster is to refinance into a loan with a lower interest rate.
The good news is that borrowers who stick it out and get their degree are more likely to pay their loans off on the standard 10-year timetable, as long as they keep their overall borrowing in line with their annual earnings.[ Jump to top ]
Average time to repay student loans by educational attainment
Getting your bachelor’s degree typically requires a significant amount of borrowing — two-thirds of 2017 graduates borrowed for college, taking on an average of $28,500 in debt.
But grad school can be even more costly. Grad students who borrow to earn a master’s or doctorate take on an average of $84,300 in student loan debt, while a professional degree in a field like law or medicine can entail taking on $186,600 in loans.
Although grad school can provide a significant earnings boost, that’s not always the case. So it makes sense that debt taken on to earn a graduate degree can take longer to pay off.
According to a survey of 61,000 respondents conducted by One Wisconsin Institute, the average time to pay off student loan debt is 21.1 years. The average time to repay student loan debt by degree type was:
- Some college (no degree): 17.2 years
- Associate degree: 18.3 years
- Bachelor’s degree: 19.7 years
- Graduate degree: 23 years
One Wisconsin’s data might not be representative and should be taken with a grain of salt. The data is based on responses to a survey sent to a network of not-for-profit organizations in 2013, in which borrowers were asked to estimate how long it would take them to pay off their loans.
Unfortunately, hard data on how long borrowers actually take to repay their student loans on average is scarce, according to researcher Colleen Campbell with the Center for American Progress.
“Re-enrollment, default, postponements, delinquencies, and opting into other repayment plans can all cause borrowers to pay for a longer period of time, but it is unclear how long these occurrences prolong repayment, how often borrowers experience each of them, and how much more they pay in the long run,” according to Campbell.
However, other surveys of borrowers can provide snapshots in time. One of the best sources of information is the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the statistical arm of the Department of Education.
When NCES looked at how well students were doing repaying their loans 12 years after starting college, it found that those who had completed their degrees within 6 years of starting school were doing much better than those who dropped out.
According to NCES’ analysis, here’s the percentage of students who paid off their loans 12 years after starting college based on whether or not they got a degree:
- Bachelor’s degree: 31.6%
- Dropped out (no degree): 18.7%
Not only were students who earned their degree about twice as likely to have paid off their loans, but they were about eight times less likely to have defaulted. Eight in 10 students who earned their degrees were either in repayment (48.6%) or had paid off their loans (31.6%). But roughly half of dropouts were still having trouble 12 years after starting school, with 29% in default, and 22% in deferment.
That almost one-third of students who earned their bachelor’s degree had repaid their loans within 12 years of starting school is notable, considering that most students don’t start repaying their loans until 6 months after leaving school. So 12 years after starting school, most of these students would only have been in repayment for six to eight years — meaning they were able to pay off their debt faster than the standard 10-year timeline.
NCES has also looked at outcomes for students 20 years after starting school. The contrast between graduates and dropouts is just as stark.
According to NCES, here’s the percentage of students who paid off their loans 20 years after starting college based on whether or not they got a degree:
- Bachelor’s degree: 50%
- Dropped out (no degree): 37.3%
How earnings after college affect student loan repayment rates
The earnings boost that graduates get when they complete their degree can help them repay their loans on time and avoid default.
According to NCES’ analysis of repayment rates by earnings, here’s the percentage of students who paid off their loans 12 years after starting college based on their annual salary:
- Top 25% of population: 37.1%
- Upper-middle 25% of population: 28.9%
- Lower-middle 25% of population: 24.5%
- Lowest 25% of population: 21%
How the amount borrowed affects student loan repayment rates
Although they can still pose a risk of default for students who dropout of school, smaller loan balances generally allow for faster repayment of loans.
According to NCES’ analysis of repayment rates by total undergraduate borrowing, here’s the percentage of students who paid off their loans 12 years after starting college based on where they fall when it comes to the total amount borrowed:
- Top 25% of population: 7.3%
- Upper-middle 25% of population: 20.4%
- Lower-middle 25% of population: 22%
- Lowest 25% of population: 41.9%
How choice of college affects student loan repayment rates
While it’s well known that for-profit colleges have higher student loan default rates than private nonprofit and public 4-year universities, the choice of college also has an effect on student loan repayment rates.
Breaking NCES data out by type of school, here’s the percentage of students who paid off their loans 12 years after starting college based on the type of school they attended:
- Private, for-profit schools: 16.5%
- Public, 4-year schools: 27.6%
- Public, 2-year schools: 28%
- Private, nonprofit schools: 29.3%
How many borrowers are paying back student loans into retirement
While IDR plans that provide loan forgiveness after 20 or 25 years of payments provide some protection that you won’t be paying back student loans into retirement, many people do carry loans into their 60s.
According to the U.S. Department of Education data above, as of Sept. 30, 2018, here’s how many borrowers of each age group owed (and how much) in federal student loan debt:
- Ages 62 and up: 1.9 million borrowers owe $65.2 billion
- Ages 50 to 61: 5.8 million borrowers owe $219.4 billion
- Ages 35 to 49: 14 million borrowers owe $540.3 billion
- Ages 25 to 34: 15.2 million borrowers owe $494.8 billion
- Ages 24 and under: 8.5 million borrowers owe $125.4 billion
Looking at the average level of federal student loan debt per person for each age group:
- Ages 62 and up: Owe $34,316
- Ages 50 to 61: Owe $37,828
- Ages 35 to 49: Owe $38,593
- Ages 25 to 34: Owe $32,533
- Ages 24 and under: Owe $14,753
Borrowers 24 and younger had the least student debt. This is in part because many are still in school and taking on new debt.[ Jump to top ]
Tools for taming student loan repayment
To help you avoid borrowing more than you can afford, and get an idea of how long it will take to you to pay off your student loans, check out the following tools:
- College Scorecard: Look up typical debt at graduation of any school you’re interested in, along with the typical monthly payment and percentage of students who are able to pay down at least $1 in debt within three years of leaving school.
- Payscale: Although College Scorecard provides earnings data by school, the Payscale College Salary report provides more detailed insights by major and career.
- Department of Education repayment estimator: The Department of Education’s repayment estimator give you an idea of what your monthly payment and the total repayment costs would be in any of the government’s student loan repayment programs.
There are also some calculators you can use:
- Student loan calculator: See how much a loan will cost based on the loan amount, interest rate, and repayment term.
- Student loan refinancing calculator: See how much you could save by adjusting your interest rate or repayment term.
- Student loan repayment calculator: See how much you can save by increasing your monthly student loan payment.
To help you get a better grasp of the numbers, we’ve provided the sources for all the statistics 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.