See how average student loan debt has changed in 10 years

Average student loan debt has risen as families try to cope with soaring college costs. Although 2021 college graduates who borrowed to pay for their education took out, on average, $208 less in loans compared to the previous year, average total student debt continues to hover around $30,000, according to US News data.

Eligible borrowers can expect some relief, however, as President Joe Biden announced plans in August to forgive some student loan debt. This will help some borrowers with federal loans, but may not cover all needs.

According to data reported to US News by 1,047 colleges in an annual survey, graduates of the Class of 2021 who took out student loans en route to a bachelor’s degree borrowed $29,719 on average. That’s nearly $6,000 more than Class of 2009 borrowers had to pay, representing an increase of about 25% in the amount borrowed by students.

Average graduate debt varies by type of institution, according to data from US News. Those who graduated in 2021 from a ranked private college borrowed more on average, at $31,820, than public college graduates, who borrowed $26,320.

This debt often has a major impact on the quality of life of those who borrowed to pay for their college education, experts say.

“The total number of individual debts doesn’t really get to the heart of what people are going through,” says Cody Hounanian, executive director of the nonprofit Student Debt Crisis Center. “We hear every day from borrowers who can’t pay their student loans, who can’t put food on the table.”

Meanwhile, a smaller percentage of students are borrowing money to pay for their college education. In 2009, about 68% of college graduates had student loan debt, while by 2021, nearly 64% of graduates had borrowed, according to data reported to US News.

The average total student loan debt, which includes both the federal government and private loansjumped over $5,500 from 2009 to 2015, but recent years have seen a stabilization in the average amount borrowed.


Borrowing is often tied to the cost of tuition and fees, which according to US News data, has more than doubled in the past 20 years at national private and public ranked universities (schools often focused on research and offering bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees).

This increase in tuition and fees continued for the 2022-2023 academic year, with private national universities increasing their rates by an average of approximately 1.4% over the previous year. But tuition fees at public national universities have slightly decreased by 1.2% – in comparison, tuition fees have increased by 3% in 2021-2022 compared to the previous year.

“The reality is, especially in tuition-focused schools, they have to raise tuition to meet their own costs,” says Stacey MacPhetres, senior director of education finance at Bright Horizons College Coach. “It makes the student debt crisis a bigger business, but I’m not surprised we’re seeing an increase in tuition fees. We’ve seen some schools freeze tuition fees or go for a standard tuition rate over four years that will sort of stabilize. But overall, we’re seeing further increases.”

Student loans are already a significant burden for many Americans, especially given the recent rise in inflation. The national student loan debt stood at nearly $1.6 trillion in the second quarter of 2022, according to a quarterly report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York released in August 2022.

There is also a serious racial disparity in student loan default rates. A Center for the Protection of Student Borrowers 2020 study, for example, found that the default rate in the United States is almost twice as high in majority black ZIP codes – 17.7% – than in majority white ZIP codes, 9%. Predominantly Hispanic ZIP codes fell between these default rates at 13%. Failure to pay often occurs after more than 270 days without payment, leading to potential legal implications and loss of eligibility for additional federal student aid.

Following additional financial hardship caused by COVID-19, the federal government has provided temporary relief to many federal borrowers. In March 2020, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, known as the CARES Act, which suspended most federal student loan payments, waived interest, and halted collections on past due loans through September 2020. After several extensions, the break is expected to end on December 31, 2022.

In the meantime, borrowers can consider making payments to reduce the principal balance and save money over time, says student loan attorney Heather Jarvis.

“I think many borrowers have taken advantage of the ability to use their available money for other necessities rather than paying off student loans,” Jarvis said. “Perhaps an even bigger impact has been the suspension of interest because student borrowers can sometimes be shocked at how the passage of time increases the cost of borrowing.”

Additionally, under Biden’s debt relief plan, those who earn less than $125,000 a year or are part of households with a combined income of less than $250,000 are eligible for debt forgiveness. up to $10,000. An additional $10,000 student debt will be written off for Pell-eligible borrowers who received Pell Grants, need-based federal aid, while in college.

“The $10,000 forgiveness will impact many borrowers. It could cut their debt in half or even wipe it out,” said Kristin McGuire, executive director of Young Invincibles, a national nonprofit advocacy and of politics. “The $20,000 is a really big step up for this policy to really start digging into some of the root causes of the student debt crisis. Because if we look at the student populations that need the most help, they’re generally eligible for Pell.”

Some borrowers also receive help from their college or university. Using federal emergency funding from the CARES Act and the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, a few institutions have paid off student debt owed directly to schools. Georgia Southwestern State University, for example, settled the outstanding balances of 82 students enrolled between spring 2020 and spring 2021, totaling more than $110,000. This step could free up money for student loan repayments that would have been used to pay for school instead.

As prospective students start thinking about college, McGuire says they shouldn’t let fear of debt keep them from going, especially if they come from a low-income home.

“A college education is the best way out of generational poverty,” she says.

Are you trying to finance your studies? Get tips and more at US News’ Paying for College hub.

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