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What is the average student loan debt? (Updated for 2020)

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You’ve probably seen the reports and articles about the student loan debt crisis in America. 43 million people of all ages in the US hold debt from pursuing college degrees. After all, total student loan debt reached 1.54 trillion in the 1st quarter of 2020, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. Obviously, that number is alarming to many - it’s more than the total credit card debt held in the country. In addition to being a lot of money, these loans are also hard for many to repay: millions are defaulting on their student debt, and more are failing to make progress on becoming student debt-free. Another Federal Reserve study in 2019 found that “Only about 36 percent of borrowers who were still current on their loan had reduced their balance over the past twelve months.”


You may be concerned about these figures as someone who is either approaching college themselves or whose son or daughter is. Many families are wary of taking on debt that they will not be able to repay for years or even decades. Importantly, student debt is not just a problem for young people: Americans over 60 owed over $86b in 2019.


The good news is that student debt can be a very powerful tool for accessing higher education. Current rates for federal loans are lower than they have been in a while, and federal loans have important protections that can help you stay on track even if your financial situation makes it difficult. Private loans can fill additional gaps that you have. But it’s important to consider your circumstances as you plan for student loans, and to understand the context.


General Student Loan Debt Statistics

Let’s look at some of the basics of student loan debt as a whole in America (source: NY Federal Reserve):

  • Total number of borrowers with student loan debt: 44.7 Million
  • Total student loan debt: $1.54 Trillion
  • Amount of student loan debt 90+ days delinquent or in default: 10.8 percent
  • Percent of people under age 30 who went to college and took on some debt: 55 percent
  • Average monthly payment amount for people making student loan payments: $200-$299

In 2016, Citizens Bank compiled research for their “Millennial Graduates in Debt” study. They surveyed college graduates aged 35 and under with student loans. The study showed:

  • People are spending 18 percent of their current salaries on student loan payments
  • 60 percent of people surveyed expect to be paying off student loans into their 40s

Student Loan Debt from Undergraduate Programs

The numbers above include all types of loans and degree types - undergraduate and graduate. What kind of debt do college students acquire while earning undergraduate degrees? The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) released a report called “Student Debt and the Class of 2018”. They surveyed recent college graduates about student loan debt. 


Of those college seniors who graduated from four-year public and private nonprofit colleges surveyed, 65 percent had student loan debt. These college seniors averaged $29,200 in student loan debt.


TICAS chart-1


Loans from for-profit colleges are even higher. 83 percent of graduates from for-profit four-year colleges in 2016 had student loan debt. These students graduated with an average of $39,900 in debt.


This study doesn’t just cover federal student loans. For the graduates that took part in this study, 17 percent of their debt was from private lenders. Often students will take out private loans to bridge the gap when federal loans don’t cover all of their college expenses.

Student Loan Debt from Graduate Programs

Graduate students also deal with student loan debt. Often they face higher debt amounts because of the costs associated with pursuing an advanced degree. Add that to the fact that they probably still have student loan debt from their undergraduate program, they are facing a big student loan debt bill.

Based on statistics compiled by the US Department of Education, here are the average cumulative student loan debts by recent graduates who completed an advanced degree in 2018:


Medicine (Doctorate): $246,000

Health Science(Doctorate): $202,400

Law: $145,500

Education (Doctorate): $111,900

Non-Education PhD: $98,800

Other Non-PhD: $132,200

What Does the Average Student Loan Debt Mean to You?

It’s easy to look at a bunch of statistics about student loan debt and become discouraged or even scared. What should these mean to you?


First, student loan debt is very real and very common. It’s something that affects the lives of people everywhere. If you are planning for college, you should start to get an idea of how much debt you could be facing after you graduate. Use what you know about your family finances to consider what you can afford.


Second, every graduate should have a clear plan in place before entering school. Do research on which schools or degree programs would provide the best value - rather than the best name or popularity. Maybe there is a family tradition tied to a certain school. There are hundreds of reasons a student picks a certain college. But if you think you might end up taking on too much debt, perhaps you want to rethink your college plans to target schools which will give you more financial aid or scholarships.


It’s very possible to minimize the amount of student loan debt you’ll experience with some advance planning. It’s also possible to maximize your money and get the best value by being more strategic with your college choice. Edmit helps you compare college costs with data from lots of sources, showing you what you’ll really pay for college based on the information you provide.


Based on the statistics and your family’s situation, student loan debt may feel unavoidable - but that doesn’t mean you can’t plan ahead for it and make decisions to minimize or even eliminate the need for aid. You also have a chance to make your student loans work for you by finding the best value college for your money.

Edmit's advice helps you to be better off after graduation.

  • Merit and financial aid estimates based on your student profile
  • Earnings estimates and financial scores for your college and major
  • Recommendations to save thousands on college

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