Concern about student loan debt widespread
By Caroline Ratcliffe Signe-Mary McKernan :: June 28th, 2013
With national student loan debt of roughly $1 trillion, it’s no surprise that many Americans are worried about their student loans.
Student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt and is second only to mortgage debt among those age 29-37. This ballooning student loan debt is a contributor to the “lost generation” of 20- and 30-somethings, whose average wealth is lower than the average wealth of those in their 20s and 30s three decades ago.
We published a new brief on school-related debt, using the FINRA Investor Educational Foundation’s 2012 National Financial Capability Survey. One in five adults age 20 and older has school-related debt and concern about the ability to repay is pervasive. The majority of student debt holders (57 percent) is worried that they may be unable to repay that debt.
If Congress doesn’t reach a compromise and the rate of subsidized student loans doubles, student loan debt and the increased payment burden will increase stress around repayment.
Beyond the short-term burden of repaying loan balances and interest, this early debt can have ripple effects and hinder borrowers’ ability to get on a secure wealth-building path. It can delay building a rainy day fund, homeownership, and saving for retirement.
Some of our findings may not be shocking to those who write monthly checks to Sallie Mae, yet they illustrate the magnitude and pervasiveness of the issue:
- Student loan debt affects people at all levels of educational attainment. Nine percent of those with just high school diplomas have school-related debt, possibly incurred for non-degree training or to fund a child’s education. Twenty-five percent of those with some college education but no degree have student loans.
- Student loan debt disproportionately affects African Americans and Hispanics. African Americans and Hispanics are twice as likely to have student loan debt as compared with whites. The large racial wealth gap and lower wealth among families of color likely lead these students to more often turn to student loans to finance their education.
- Student loan debt affects people at nearly all income levels. Twenty percent of those in households with annual incomes under $25,000 have student loans—that’s only 2 percent more than those earning $100,000 and up.
- Concern about repaying student loan debt also cuts across economic and demographic groups (see figure below). Nearly three-fourths of those with incomes less than $25,000 are concerned about their ability to repay—and so is a still-substantial 36 percent of those earning above $100,000.
College is a good investment for those able to complete the degree, but roughly half of people do not. Out of the starting gate, students should consider the cost and completion rate at the institution they plan to attend, earnings in their field of study, and type of student loan (public or private). Helping young people take advantage of student loans to get their degrees—but avoid burying themselves in debt—is a step in the right direction toward economic stability and wealth accumulation.
Illustration by Daniel Wolfe / The Urban Institute.