Student loan borrowers gather near the White House to tell President Biden to cancel student debt. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)
Student loan borrowers gather near the White House to tell President Biden to cancel student debt. (Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

Who has student loan debt in America?

Millions of Americans rely on the federal government to cover the cost of college. Education loans have existed for generations, but borrowing only really took off in the past two decades.

Soaring college costs, higher enrollment, changes to the federal lending system, labor market demand for credentials and paltry wage growth have all contributed to the $1.6 trillion in outstanding federal student debt. This does not include debt originated in the private market. The federal lending system, which originates the vast majority of student loans, is complex. There are many moving parts and many people whose lives it has touched.

Public awareness of education debt is high amid debates over loan forgiveness. President Biden said Wednesday he would cancel up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt for many borrowers, and up to $20,000 for Pell Grant recipients. Critics of broad cancellation say the policy would disproportionately benefit elites, while proponents say the student loan burden is far more nuanced.

Here’s how the debt shakes out.

How does the debt break down?

Most student debt is held in large loans, but most borrowers have small loans.

About 13% of federal student debt is held in loans of $20K or less...

32%

38%

5

8%

17%

<$10K

10-20K

20-40K

40-100K

100K+

...but 53% of borrowers owe less than $20K

7%

100K+

18%

40-100K

33% of borrowers have $10K or less left on their loans

20%

10-20K

21%

20-40K

Most student debt is held in large loans, but most borrowers have small loans.

About 13% of federal student debt is held in loans of $20K or less...

32%

38%

5

8%

17%

<$10K

10-20K

20-40K

40-100K

100K+

...but 53% of borrowers owe less than $20K

33% of borrowers have $10K or less left on their loans

20%

10-20K

21%

20-40K

7%

100K+

18%

40-100K

Most student debt is held in large loans, but most borrowers have small loans.

About 13% of federal student debt is held in loans with $20K or less still owed...

32%

38%

5%

8%

17%

<$10K

10-20K

20-40K

40-100K

100K+

...but 53% of borrowers owe less than $20K

33%

<$10K

20%

10-20K

21%

20-40K

18%

40-100K

7%

100K+

About 1 in 5 Americans hold student loans. More than half of those 45 million people with federal student loans have $20,000 or less to pay, with about a third of all borrowers owing less than $10,000. Seven percent of people with federal debt owe more than $100,000.

Economists at the Federal Reserve say borrowers with the least amount of debt often have difficulty repaying their loans, at times because they did not complete a degree. Conversely, people with the highest loan balances are often current on their payments likely because of their higher education levels and associated earning power, according to the Federal Reserve.

After six repayment extensions, pressure from Congress and activists, the White House acts on federal student loans. (Video: Michael Cadenhead/The Washington Post)

Those higher balances account for nearly 40 percent of the $1.6 trillion in outstanding federal student loans. Borrowing for graduate degree programs has been a primary driver of the growth in federal lending. Whereas borrowing for undergraduate degrees declined by $15 billion from the 2010-11 academic year to 2017-18, it increased for graduate programs by $2.3 billion during that period, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Who holds student debt?

Percent of Americans in each age group that owe:

< $10K

10-20K

20-40K

40-100K

100K+

No debt

Ages 18-24: 24% have student debt

25-34: 33%

35-49: 23%

50-61: 12%

62+: 4%

Percent of Americans in each age group that owe:

10-20K

100K+

No debt

< $10K

20-40K

40-100K

Ages 18-24: 24% have student debt

25-34: 33%

35-49: 23%

50-61: 12%

62+: 4%

Percent of Americans in each age group that owe:

$10K or less

$10-20K

$20-40K

$40-100K

$100K or more

No debt

24% have student debt

76% do not have student debt

Aged

18-24

33%

67%

25-34

23%

77%

35-49

88%

12%

50-61

96%

4%

62+

Student debt is most prevalent among Americans aged 25 to 34. Sixty-seven percent of student loan borrowers are under 40, according to the New York Federal Reserve, but only 57 percent of balances are owed by those under 40. In other words, people with larger balances are more likely to be older likely due to borrowing for graduate school.

Among the fastest-growing categories of student loan borrowers over the past two decades are Black students and people ages 50 and older, according to the most recent Federal Reserve data. The median income of households with student loans is $76,400, and 7 percent of borrowers are below the poverty line.

Where did the money go?

Although a majority of college students attend public two- and four-year institutions, about half of outstanding student debt is held by people who went to private schools. Among those private schools, for-profit colleges account for 17 percent of the debt while private nonprofit universities account for another 34 percent.

People who attended for-profit colleges were more likely to struggle to repay their loans than others, according to the Federal Reserve. Fed economists say high costs and low returns to for-profit enrollment generate worse student debt and repayment outcomes. They found more than one-fourth of borrowers who attended for-profit schools were behind on payments, compared with 10 percent who went to public institutions and 5 percent who attended private not-for-profit institutions.

Where do borrowers live?

Average federal student debt per borrower, in thousands of dollars

Below $33K

33-36K

36-39K

Above 39K

ME

33

AK

VT

NH

WI

34

32

38

34

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

36

33

33

29

34

38

36

38

34

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

37

34

31

31

30

33

35

35

35

35

32

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

37

33

37

32

35

33

32

39

43

38

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

DC

35

34

33

33

36

38

38

55

HI

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

37

32

35

37

37

42

PR

TX

FL

33

38

28

Average federal student debt per borrower, in

thousands of dollars

Below $33K

$33-36K

$36-39K

Above $39K

ME

33

AK

WI

VT

NH

34

32

38

34

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

36

33

33

29

34

38

36

38

34

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

37

34

31

31

30

33

35

35

35

35

32

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

37

33

37

32

35

33

32

39

43

38

AZ

NM

KS

AR

NC

SC

DC

TN

35

34

33

33

36

38

38

55

HI

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

37

32

35

37

37

42

TX

FL

PR

33

38

28

Average federal student debt per borrower in thousands of dollars

Below $33K

$33-36K

$36-39K

Above $39K

ME

33

AK

WI

VT

NH

34

32

38

34

WA

ID

MT

ND

MN

IL

MI

NY

MA

38

34

33

29

34

38

36

36

33

OR

NV

WY

SD

IA

IN

OH

PA

NJ

CT

RI

37

34

31

31

30

33

35

35

35

35

32

CA

UT

CO

NE

MO

KY

WV

VA

MD

DE

37

33

37

32

35

33

32

39

43

38

AZ

NM

KS

AR

TN

NC

SC

DC

33

33

36

38

38

55

35

34

OK

LA

MS

AL

GA

HI

37

32

35

37

37

42

PR

FL

TX

28

38

33

Americans across the country are counted in the ranks of student loan borrowers, but there are some areas that have a concentration of people with high balances. Washington, D.C., takes the top seat, with the average federal student debt per borrower at $55,000, followed by Maryland at $43,000 and Georgia at $42,000.

Some states with high debt balances have a high proportion of residents with graduate degrees. Metropolitan Washington, for instance, is one of the most educated regions of the country. The District has the highest percentage of residents with advanced degrees, while Maryland has the third-highest, according to Census Bureau data.

Average debt loads can also be a consequence of state investment in higher education. States that prioritize funding public colleges and universities, such as California and New York, have relatively lower average debt per borrower, despite having among the largest numbers of people with student loans.

Nick Mourtoupalas contributed to this report.

Graphics use data from the Federal Student Loan Portfolio, published by the Department of Education.

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