Student loan debt statistics 2018 | 5+ visuals of the facts and figures

Student loan debt statistics

Students preparing to graduate are well aware that degrees come with a hefty price tag. But just how much student debt are Americans taking on?

Kyle Morgan

How much will I borrow for higher education?

New data from the Federal Research Bank of New York reveals that at the end of 2016, some 44 million students had taken on debt for their education — to the tune of a whopping $1.31 trillion. Reaching a record high for the 18th straight year, this debt threatens to hobble generations of graduates.

Only about a decade ago, students left college with about $20,000 in loans. In 2015, the average student had tacked on an extra $14,000 for a total of $34,000 — a 70% increase. Today, student loans are part and parcel in the pursuit of higher education.

Why do we even need student loans?

Student loans are designed to help future graduates tackle the costs of tuition, living expenses and more so they can focus on putting their pencils to paper in school.

You can typically put student loans toward any education-related expense:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Dorms or other housing
  • Transportation
  • Books and supplies
  • Meals and groceries
Type of federal loanType of studentFixed interest rate for loans disbursed after July 1, 2017
Direct subsidized loansUndergraduate4.45%
Direct unsubsidized loansUndergraduate, graduate or professional studies4.45%–6%
Direct PLUS loansParents and graduate or professional studies7%
Perkins loansUndergraduate, graduate or professional Studies5%

American student debt at a glance

Among all totals borrowed, students are taking out a range of loan amounts to meet their educational needs. The largest group, comprising more than 12 million people, borrows between $10,000 and $25,000. Over 400 thousand people are the outliers, borrowing upward of $200,000.

Balance in 2015Number of borrowers
$1 to $5,0008,960,200
$5,000 to $10,0007,740,700
$10,000 to $25,00012,434,400
$25,000 to $50,0008,319,600
$25,000 to $50,0008,319,600
$50,000 to $75,0003,341,100
$75,000 to $100,0001,350,800
$100,000 to $150,0001,116,500
$150,000 to $200,000500,400
$200,000 or more415,400
The $1.31 trillion in student loans at the end of 2016 is bad news enough, but that total includes a increase of $31 billion in the fourth quarter alone. Yikes.

How student debt has grown over time

As time moves on and more people go — or go back — to school, they’re taking on more substantial student debt. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York’s report reveals that every generation’s average student loan balances have increased by 256% overall in the past 10 years.

Students younger than 40 account for 65% of borrowers, a generation that’s grown its loan balances by about 200% since 2004. Borrowers over 60 have jumped their borrowing by a full 1,000% since 2004.

YearUnder 3030s40s50s60s

Who are the main borrowers?

Today, 44 million students of all ages are taking out student loans to take on the financial woes of school. The highest group of borrowers are under 30, making up 40% of all generations carrying student loans. Since 2004, students under 30 have nearly doubled in number of borrowers — from 11.3 million to 17.3 million today.

The second largest group of borrowers are students in their 30s, comprising some 27% of the borrowing pool. Students in their 40s and 50s make up about 27% as well, followed by the 6% of borrowers who are 60 or older.

YearUnder 3030s40s50s60s

How are we doing paying off these student loans?

Looking at trends since 2004, you’ll see that the majority of borrowers are having trouble decreasing their student loan balances. Only about 16.7 million of the 44.2 million borrowers are able to stay on top of their loans, lowering their balances through regular repayments.

In 2015, 46% of borrowers had the same or higher balance than the previous quarter due to accumulated interest. Ten percent of students defaulted on their loans in 2015, and since 2004 the number of borrowers in default has quadrupled. Against these figures, note that the number of borrowers overall doubled from 2004 to 2015.

YearCurrent balance lower than previous quarterCurrent balance same or higher than previous quarter90+ days overdueDefaultTotal # of borrowers

Number of borrowers in millions.

How to pay off student loans

Don’t sacrifice your financial future when paying for your education. Stay on top of your student loans and avoid unnecessary interest by paying your loan installments by their due dates. Responsible repayments can ultimately improve your credit score: They let lenders know that you’re a trustworthy, less risky borrower when you’re in the market for a future car or home. Use these tips to take charge of your student loans:

  • Consolidate multiple federal loans.
  • Refinance your loans at a lower interest rate.
  • Get ahead by paying interest on your loan while you’re still in school.
  • Set up an automatic withdrawals to avoid late fees and penalties.

Ways your employer can help pay off your student debt

The ever rising national student debt currently sits at over $1.4 trillion as of Q2 2017, according to the Federal Reserve. There are over 44 million Americans carrying a student loan debt. Of those, the average graduate owes $38,000.

With over 7 million of the U.S. population having defaulted on their student loans, recent graduates are desperate to land themselves in a high paying job in order to start paying off their student loans. However, a higher income is not the only way you can accelerate the speed at which you pay off your student loan.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Opting to work for the government or specific nonprofit organizations can result in your federal student debt (95% of total student debt according to Federal Student Aid) being forgiven after 10 years if you meet the right conditions.

After you have made 120 qualifying monthly payments under a qualifying repayment plan – while working full-time for a qualifying employer – the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Program forgives the remaining balance on your Direct Loans.

Although the program is only applicable on Direct Federal Loans, and not on Federal Family Education Loans or Perkins Loans, they can still be forgiven if consolidated into a Direct Federal loan.

Qualifying monthly payments:

  • After October 1, 2007;
  • Under a qualifying repayment plan;
  • For the full amount due as shown on your bill;
  • No later than 15 days after your due date; and
  • While you are employed full-time by a qualifying employer

Qualifying repayment plan:

Any income-driven repayment plans (plans where your monthly payment is based on your income)

Qualifying employer:

  • Government organisations (federal, state, local or tribal)
  • Not-for-profit organisations that are tax-exempt under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code
  • Other not-for-profit organisations whose primary purpose is to provide certain types of qualifying public services

Qualifying federal student loan:

Any non-defaulted loan received under the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan (Direct Loan) Program.

Case study: with PSLF Program vs. without PSLF Program

Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) ProgramWithout Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) Program
StateNew HampshireNew Hampshire
Loan typeFederal Direct Unsubsidized LoanFederal Direct Unsubsidized Loan
Fixed interest rate for Direct Loans4.45%4.45%
Loan amount$38,000$38,000
Loan term (months)120132
Weighted average income of people with at least some college credits$54,000$54,000
Repayment planPAYEPAYE
Total amount paid$43,878$48,532

Potential amount saved: $4,654 – that’s 12% of your original loan of $38,000

Potential time saved: 12 months

Employer-provided student loan repayment assistance

The availability of qualified graduates to the workforce is something that will benefit many companies who are looking for quality individuals to join their team. So it makes sense that companies would be willing to offer incentives to potential graduate employees that will assist them in paying off their student loans.

A poll of 3,227 HR professionals by SHRM found that 4% of employers are offering employer-provided student loan repayment assistance. Finding the right employer can help you reduce the amount of time needed to pay off a student loan significantly. The downside is that these payments are not exempt from payroll or income tax.

Companies such as Aetna, Fidelity, Natixis Global Asset Management and PWC offer their employees a lifetime maximum of $10,000 towards their student loans. Nvidia even offers a maximum of $30,000 – that’s potentially 79% of your original $38,000 loan! Other companies will offer a certain capped amount each year until the loan is paid off.

Volunteering your time (not technically “employer”)

Organisations such as SponsorChange offer direct student loan payments in exchange for volunteers who complete skill-based projects. While volunteer work isn’t technically ‘employment’, this is another avenue through which choosing the right place to devote your time and services can result in money being directed straight towards reducing your student loan. Plus, volunteer work will look great on your resume. In addition to doing something positive for the community, you are also paying off your student debt in the process.

For all media inquiries, please contact

Jennifer McDermott
US Communications Manager
& Consumer Advocate
M: +1 (347) 276 6617

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