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78% of Recent Graduates Say Student Loan Debt Hinders Lifestyle and Financial Milestones

Editorial Note: The content of this article is based on the author's opinions and recommendations alone. It may not have been reviewed, commissioned or otherwise endorsed by any of our network partners.

Student loans have a way of making you feel stuck in the mud, if not sinking in quicksand.

In order to see how big an impact this debt has, we surveyed borrowers who left school in the last five years. We found that nearly 8 of 10 of them say their student loan debt has hindered their life in some significant way, leaving them stagnant.

Not being able to travel, move homes, change careers or start a family — these were some common concerns.

For close to half of our survey respondents, suffering in the status quo has led to regrets about how much they borrowed (46%) and what they studied in college (46%). More interesting, however, is that those who work in a field related to their college major were more confident about handling their monthly loan payment.

Here’s a deeper look at the results:

Key findings

  • Nearly 78% of recent graduates said their student loan debt limits their life. Most commonly, they reported giving up traveling (44%), saving for retirement (31%), going out with friends (30%) and investing (28%).
  • Less than half (44%) were fully confident they can make their monthly student loan payment. Moreover, about 1 in 5 reported being either “not very” or “not at all” confident they could pay their next bill.
  • About 55% of respondents said their starting salary for their first job after college was less than their student loan balance, and 46% still owe more still owe more money than they make at their current annual salary.
  • Close to half (46%) of recent grads wish they took on less student loan debt. About a quarter of those surveyed (26%) owe more than $50,000, while 21% pay more than $300 toward their balance each month.
  • Some 35% of these borrowers are not working in the field they studied. Those who aren’t working in their degree field are more likely to say they wish they had majored in something else: 63% versus 39% who are working in their intended field.
  • Just 22% of recent grads have refinanced their education debt. Of those that haven’t, 34% said they didn’t know what refinancing would mean for their loans.

What recent grads give up to focus on student loan repayment

With monthly payment amounts and loan balances that were all over the map, our survey respondents each face unique repayment situations. Their debt also affects them in different ways.

While the 78% reported that their debt hindered their life, there was a wide variety in terms of which lifestyle choices and financial goals they had to give up. Traveling (44%), saving for retirement (31%), going out with friends (30%) and investing (28%) led the list.

Respondents also appeared to be feeling stuck in other ways, as moving (23%), going back to school (20%), changing jobs (19%), starting a business (12%), having a baby (11%) and even dating (7%) were cited among the things their student loans had kept them from doing.

For many borrowers, an unwieldy monthly payment amount caused them to put off these life plans and financial aims. Less than half (44%) of respondents were fully confident they could make their payment each month, while roughly 1 in 5 were either “not very” or “not at all” confident.

Student loans getting in the way of life also leads to regret. About 46% of our recent grads cohort wish they had borrowed less money for their education.

Recent grads’ salaries sometimes outweighed by debt

Finding a job is undoubtedly the top concern for many recent college graduates. Unfortunately, our results showed that some borrowers who find work still don’t earn enough to manage their student loan repayment.

In fact, 55% of borrowers said their starting salary right out of school was less than their student loan balance — and about 46% still owe more than they make.

The gender pay gap could well be playing a role, as 59% of male survey respondents said their current salary surpasses their loan balance, but just 44% of women could say the same.

Another factor appears to be whether the recent grads in question are working in the field for which they majored in college. About 55% of respondents who reported working in their degree field make more than they owe, compared to 42% of those working outside their chosen field.

Those working in their preferred industry were also more confident in their ability to make their loan payment each month: 55% versus 34% who do something else for a living.

Nearly half of recent grads regret their choice of major

With salaries sometimes less than their student loan balances and positions not necessarily available in their line of work, many borrowers begin regretting the subjects they studied in school.

About 46% of survey respondents said they wish they had studied something else. Given the opportunity for a major redo, these recent grads said they would go back and specialize in business (including finance, management and marketing), science (such as biology or chemistry) or information technology.

Unsurprisingly, borrowers who aren’t working in the field they studied were more likely to say they wish they majored in something else: 63% versus 39% who do work in their degree area.

First-generation students who might have more financial responsibilities than their peers seem to be especially likely to put aside career goals: While one-third of our respondents aren’t working in their dream job field because it doesn’t pay enough, 42% of first-in-their-family college grads didn’t even pursue their dream job due to salary concerns, compared to 27% of those who had a parent or sibling with a college degree.

How recent grads can handle burdensome student loan debt

Regret isn’t the most useful repayment strategy.

While many of our recent grads reported mixed feelings about how much they borrowed — and the degree they borrowed it for — it pays to look forward, not back. If you’re among these borrowers, however, you do have some options.

One way to trim down your monthly debt payment is with student loan refinancing. The measure consolidates your federal and private loans for a more straightforward repayment with a new lender of your choice. If you (or your cosigner) have strong credit and a good debt-to-income ratio, you could also reduce your overall interest rate via refinancing (or decrease your monthly payment by lengthening your loan term).

About 22% of our survey respondents said they had already refinanced their education debt. Those who hadn’t gave a few different reasons:

Refinancing, of course, isn’t right for every borrower. It’s not a fit for federal loan borrowers who want to retain their government-exclusive protections, such as access to income-driven repayment plans and certain loan forgiveness programs.

Other possibly useful loan management tactics include:

  • Direct Loan Consolidation: Group your loans (federal only) for a simpler repayment, albeit without dropping your interest rate.
  • Adjusting your repayment plan: Consider income-driven repayment for your federal loans, or contact your private lender about its menu of options.
  • Increase income and cut expenses: Increase your payment amounts by spending less and raking in more money (maybe through a side hustle).

If you’re a borrower — recent grad or not — and looking to take your repayment to the next level, start by setting a short-term goal. That will help you gradually work toward the longer-term aim of being debt-free.


Student Loan Hero commissioned Qualtrics to perform an online survey of 533 Americans who graduated from college within the last five years and are currently making student loan payments. The survey was conducted from April 15 to May 6, 2019.


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