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A Demographic Look at Who Has Student Loan Debt

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Student loan debt forgiveness is a hotly debated topic, and it’s easy to see why. More than 1 in 5 owing student loan debt, and these burdens are quite large for some families.

With forgiveness on many minds, LendingTree researchers looked at who has student debt and which demographics are most impacted. The analysis — based on data from the latest Federal Reserve Survey on Consumer Finances — also examines how likely different demographics are to hold student loan debt.

Keep reading for more insight into U.S. student loan debt and how it’s affecting Americans.

Key findings

  • More than 1 in 5 U.S. families hold student loan debt. 21.4% of families owe student loan debt as of 2019 — the latest data from the Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances. This is down from 22.3% in 2016. These families owe a record median of $22,000, up from $20,210 in 2016.
  • Black families borrow student loans at higher rates than other races — and they owe more. 30.2% of Black families hold student loan debt, versus 20.0% of white and 14.3% of Hispanic families. Meanwhile, Black families owe a median of $30,000, compared with $23,000 among white and $17,600 among Hispanic families.
  • Many families where the reference person only has a high school degree or didn’t finish college still hold substantial amounts of student loan debt. Just more than a quarter (25.8%) of families where the reference person (definition below) didn’t finish college owe student loan debt, at a median of $15,700. Meanwhile, 11.8% of families where the reference person only has a high school diploma owe student loan debt, at a median of $14,000.
  • The least wealthy Americans are most likely to hold student loan debt — and more of it. 36.0% of families in the bottom quartile of net worth owe a median of $32,000 in student loan debt. Meanwhile, 5.7% of families in the top 10% owe student debt, at a median of $20,000.
  • Families in which the reference person isn’t working owe the most student loan debt. These families owe a median of $30,000, compared with a median of $23,000 among families in which the reference person is working.

Important phrasing to remember

How does the Survey of Consumer Finances define families? What does it mean by reference person? Here are a few key words or phrases to know:

  • Families: People living in the same household who are interdependent on one economically dominant person or couple
  • Reference person: Economically dominant person in a household
  • Net worth: Family’s total value of financial and nonfinancial assets, minus debt (or liabilities)
  • Quartile: Represents a quarter of a group

Fewer families owe student loan debt — but they owe more

Let’s start with some good news: A lower percentage of families had student loan debt in 2019 than in 2016. The catch? Those with student loan debt owed more than in 2016.

According to the latest 2019 data from the Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances, more than 1 in 5 (21.4%) U.S. families hold a record median of $22,000 in student loan debt, a decrease from 22.3% in 2016, when families held $20,210 in related debt.

It’s only the second time dating back to 1989 that the percentage of families with student loan debt decreased. Meanwhile, the median student loan debt total has only dropped once in the same period — 30 years ago in 1992, and that was by only $70.

Rising tuition costs could be part of the reason. A 2021 study found the cost of tuition and fees rose by 20% at public and private colleges between the 2010-11 and 2019-20 academic years.

This chart outlines student loan debt totals among families, and the rate of families who have it:

Student loan debt (all families)

YearMedian student loan debt% with student loan debt
1989$5,9708.9%
1992$5,90010.7%
1995$6,51011.9%
1998$11,01011.3%
2001$11,55011.5%
2004$12,47013.4%
2007$14,81015.2%
2010$15,32019.1%
2013$18,67019.9%
2016$20,21022.3%
2019$22,00021.4%

Source: Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances

Family structure: Couples without children hold most student loan debt

Those without children seem to be struggling the most to pay down their student loan debt — which may be why they haven’t started a family yet. Couples without children have the largest amount of student loan debt ($35,000), while those younger than 55 who are single and without children carry the second-highest amount at $21,500.

That’s not to say that parents have small amounts of student loan debt — it’s just not as much. For example, couples with children hold the third-highest amount of debt at $19,000.

And these parents with student loan debt are faced with a unique challenge of paying off their debt and potentially saving for their child’s education simultaneously.

A 2021 LendingTree study found 70% of parents with their own student debt who have started saving for their kid’s education have had to pull money to pay other expenses. On the other hand, just 24% of parents who no longer have student debt and 16% who’ve never had student debt said the same.

Parents with their own student debt are also more willing to consider withdrawing from their retirement savings to help pay for their child’s education. More than 8 in 10 (81%) parents with their own student debt, versus 66% of parents who no longer have student debt and 58% who’ve never had student debt.

Race: Higher rate of Black families owe student loan debt — and they owe more

The Survey of Consumer Finances also breaks down the student loan data by race — white, Black and Hispanic.

Black families borrow student loans at higher rates than other races and owe more. While 30.2% of Black families (median of $30,000) hold student loan debt, only 20.0% of white (median of $23,000) and 14.3% of Hispanic families (median of $17,600) have this type of debt.

Household income can help explain why Black families have so much student loan debt to manage.

According to a 2020 LendingTree study, Black families have a median household income of $41,511 — nearly $10,000 less than that of Hispanic households ($51,404) and more than $24,000 less than that of white households ($65,902).

That significant difference in income can make it harder for Black families to pay back their student loan debt than other races. And that same study found that default rates among Black students were far higher than other races.

Of interest: The 2016 data showed Black families with a median student loan debt nearly $1,000 more than white families, a gap that’s widened to $7,000 in the latest data. Hispanics saw a significant decrease in median student loan debt — $19,140 in 2016 to $17,600 in 2009 — and percentages with it — 19.3% in 2016 to 14.3% in 2019.

The following chart breaks down how much student loan debt statistics by race:

Student loan debt (by race)

YearMedian student loan debt, white% with student loan debt, whiteMedian student loan debt, Black% with student loan debt, BlackMedian student loan debt, Hispanic% with student loan debt, Hispanic
1989$5,9708.3%$3,98012.3%$7,9609.9%
1992$6,26010.8%$5,18012.6%$6,2608.3%
1995$6,51011.6%$5,84013.7%$6,68011.7%
1998$11,48011.3%$8,02011.2%$7,8609.1%
2001$11,84011.0%$7,22014.8%$7,22011.6%
2004$13,56013.7%$11,52016.5%$6,7808.2%
2007$16,05013.8%$11,36022.5%$12,34014.1%
2010$15,55018.9%$15,32024.1%$12,96014.3%
2013$19,77018.4%$16,47031.2%$14,28014.1%
2016$20,31020.2%$21,27030.7%$19,14019.3%
2019$23,00020.0%$30,00030.2%$17,60014.3%

Source: Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances

Education level: Americans without college degrees still hold substantial amounts of student loan debt

Having student loan debt isn’t an indicator of having a college degree. Many families where the reference person (the economically dominant person in a household) only has a high school diploma or didn’t finish college still have large amounts of student loan debt. For example, more than a quarter (25.8%) of families where the reference person didn’t finish college owe student loan debt (a median of $15,700). Meanwhile, 11.8% of families where the reference person only has a high school diploma owe student loan debt (a median of $14,000).

That being said, families who have a reference person who completed college have the most student loan debt, which makes sense. The data shows 29.1% of families where the reference person has a college degree have student loan debt, owing a median of $35,000.

This chart gives a much closer look at student loan debt by education level. As degree levels rise, so does the median amount of student debt in 2019:

Student loan debt (by education level)

YearMedian student loan debt, no high school diploma% with student loan debt, no high school diplomaMedian student loan debt, high school diploma% with student loan debt, high school diplomaMedian student loan debt, some college% with student loan debt, some collegeMedian student loan debt, college degree% with student loan debt, college degree
1989$3,9801.5%$5,3307.0%$5,97012.7%$7,96016.1%
1992$4,4702.4%$4,6507.4%$4,83013.4%$7,49018.1%
1995$7,6802.4%$4,1708.6%$6,51016.6%$8,35018.4%
1998$5,9802.6%$5,5005.6%$8,18014.8%$18,24020.0%
2001$3,9002.8%$8,3808.2%$7,94015.1%$18,05017.3%
2004$6,7803.4%$6,7806.6%$9,22018.9%$20,34020.6%
2007$7,4105.8%$7,6508.8%$13,58020.2%$24,69022.5%
2010$8,0105.4%$9,43012.8%$14,14026.6%$23,56024.8%
2013$9,3304.6%$10,98012.5%$15,04026.6%$25,26027.1%
2016$10,6405.8%$12,76015.0%$16,27029.0%$31,91028.5%
2019$12,0005.5%$14,00011.8%$15,70025.8%$35,00029.1%

Source: Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances

Net worth: Least wealthy Americans most likely to hold student loan debt

American families with the lowest net worths (the total amount of financial and nonfinancial assets, minus debt) are most likely to hold student loan debt — and large amounts of it. More than 3 in 10 (36.0%) families in the bottom quartile of net worth have a median student loan debt amount of $32,000, versus 5.7% of families in the top 10% (who hold a median student loan debt of $20,000.)

Families with the lowest net worths didn’t always have the highest amount of student loan debt. In fact, this scenario was flipped in 2016: That year, families in the top 10% by net worth had the highest median student loan debts at $27,650 (versus $26,590 among families in the bottom quartile). In 2019, the top 10% saw median student debt drop by nearly $8,000, while the bottom quartile saw debt rise more than $5,000 — even as the percentage with student loan debt dipped among both groups.

This chart outlines how net worth can impact student loan debt:

Student loan debt (by percentile of net worth)

DateMedian student loan debt, less than 25% with student loan debt, less than 25Median student loan debt, 25 to 49.9% with student loan debt, 25 to 49.9Median student loan debt, 50 to 74.9% with student loan debt, 50 to 74.9Median student loan debt, 75 to 89.9% with student loan debt, 75 to 89.9Median student loan debt, 90 to 100% with student loan debt, 90 to 100
1989$6,56014.5%$3,9809.2%$7,9606.8%$7,9606.4%$3,9803.4%
1992$6,44020.2%$4,65010.5%$4,6506.9%$4,4705.7%$10,2104.0%
1995$8,35019.7%$5,84012.8%$4,5909.5%$8,0106.3%$5,8404.7%
1998$15,73020.3%$6,29011.6%$10,7008.3%$5,9805.4%$12,5804.0%
2001$13,29019.4%$7,22011.5%$11,55010.1%$12,1307.3%$20,2202.0%
2004$13,56023.1%$10,17014.1%$13,56010.7%$10,8506.6%$10,1704.5%
2007$14,81025.5%$14,81015.3%$12,34013.0%$14,8107.9%$23,4505.8%
2010$18,85033.7%$11,78019.6%$14,14014.8%$14,14010.2%$16,5005.3%
2013$21,96036.1%$13,18019.4%$14,50014.4%$17,02012.3%$19,9905.7%
2016$26,59039.4%$17,02022.2%$15,95018.4%$15,95010.8%$27,6506.5%
2019$32,00036.0%$17,00022.5%$20,00016.9%$14,50013.1%$20,0005.7%

Source: Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances

Employment: Those not working owe more in student loan debt

Families where the reference person isn’t working owe the most student loan debt (a median of $30,000), much higher than in families where the reference person is working (a median of $23,000).

Entrepreneurs are known to hustle, and it appears consumers who work for themselves are working hard to build businesses and pay down their student loan debt. Entrepreneurs have the least amount of student loan debt at a median of $18,000. But this low level of debt for entrepreneurs hasn’t always been the case: In 1989, 1992, 1995, 2001, 2004 and 2007, entrepreneurs owed the same amount or more than those who are employed.

Take a close look at the following chart for more insight into how employment can affect student loan debt amounts:

Student loan debt (by employment)

DateMedian student loan debt, employee% with student loan debt, employeeMedian student loan debt, self-employed% with student loan debt, self-employedMedian student loan debt, retired% with student loan debt, retiredMedian student loan debt, other not working% with student loan debt, other not working
1989$5,97011.9%$5,9708.4%$3,9801.4%$3,98013.1%
1992$5,90014.2%$6,26010.1%$6,4402.3%$5,36014.8%
1995$6,34015.6%$6,34012.3%$4,3402.0%$9,35016.0%
1998$11,01014.9%$8,4909.4%$5,5001.8%$12,58018.2%
2001$11,12015.4%$13,2909.3%$24,5500.8%$11,55020.4%
2004$12,20017.7%$20,3409.4%$6,7801.9%$10,17027.6%
2007$14,81020.0%$17,28010.9%$12,3403.7%$12,34024.0%
2010$17,44024.9%$12,96017.0%$10,6004.3%$11,78028.1%
2013$19,77026.7%$15,37017.4%$16,4704.6%$13,73028.7%
2016$21,27030.6%$19,14019.2%$14,8905.3%$17,02029.8%
2019$23,00029.5%$18,00017.6%$22,0004.6%$30,00027.5%

Source: Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances

When it comes to occupation, this is how median student loan debt amounts varied in 2019:

ProfessionMedian student loan debt% with student loan debt
Managerial or professional$28,00032.8%
Technical, sales or services$20,00025.3%
Other occupation$18,00022.0%
Retired or other not working$23,7007.7%

The likely reason for managerial or professional job holders holding more student loan debt than other professions is that more jobs falling within that category tend to require a college degree and potentially an advanced degree, such as a master’s or doctorate.

Methodology

Data for this study comes from the Federal Reserve 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances — the latest available. The Federal Reserve survey describes student loan debt as “education installment loans.”

 

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