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Average Student Loan Debt In the United States: 2021/2022

What Is the Average Student Loan Debt?
Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau

Updated December 22, 2021
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Editor’s note: Lantern by SoFi seeks to provide content that is objective, independent and accurate. Writers are separate from our business operation and do not receive direct compensation from advertisers or partners. Read more about our Editorial Guidelines and How We Make Money.
It can be hard to wrap your mind around the size of college student debts in America. When you’re talking about education-financing trends, the numbers are … huge. To the tune of $1.7 trillion in 2021.How did this happen? Experts say that as it became more and more common to pursue a college degree, the federal government made accruing student loans fairly easy to do and tuition has skyrocketed, to the tune of a 211 percent increase at public universities alone from 2002 to 2022, according to U.S. News and World Report. These three forces seem to have strengthened one another, leading to what some describe as a crisis.Forbes magazine says that student loan debt is now the second highest consumer debt category in the nation. It is second to mortgage debt and ranks higher than credit card or auto loan debt.

How Much Student Loan Debt Is There?

According to the latest statistics, about 45 million Americans owe nearly $1.7 trillion in student loan debt. The majority of this debt is made up of federal loans.In March 2020, a pause was put on payments on federal student loans due to hardship caused by COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. Department of Education announced another extension of the federal student loan payment pause until August 31st, 2022. That’s when payments must resume.The over-two-year-long pause included the following relief measures for eligible  loans:
  • a suspension of loan payments
  • a 0% interest rate
  • stopped collections on defaulted loans
The payment pause freed up cash in the budgets of millions of Americans. But the pause has also reduced by tens of billions of dollars the amount in interest payments that the government expected to collect during this period, according to the Wall Street Journal. 

Average Student Loan Debt in the United States

The average federal student loan debt is $36,510 per borrower and private student loan debt averages $54,921 per borrower, according to recent data from Educationdata.org. Since Spring 2020, the average student loan debt increased by 1.6%.  Looking forward, the average student-loan debt holder takes 20 years to pay off what’s owed. Some professional graduates take more than 45 years to repay their student loans.  The average total debt remains close to the maximum amount a student can borrow if relying solely on federal loans, says U.S. News and World Report. The states with some of the highest average federal loan debt are the District of Columbia, Maryland, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, New York and Florida. The states with some of the lowest average federal loan debt are North Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Alaska, Arkansas, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, and Maine.

Average Undergraduate Student Loan Debt

When it comes to undergraduate student loans, the average student borrows over $30,000 to pursue a bachelor’s degree, says Educationdata.org. Once students graduate, drop below half-time enrollment, or leave school, their federal student loan goes into repayment. However, if they have a Direct Subsidized, Direct Unsubsidized, or Federal Family Education Loan, they have a six-month grace period before being required to start making regular payments. They’ll have a nine-month grace period if they’ve got a Perkins Loan.

Average Graduate Student Loan Debt

When you scrutinize the student loans average for graduate school, the debt can be staggering. The average graduate student loan debt balance is $91,148 among federal borrowers, says Educationdata.org. How it breaks down: The average debt among master’s degree holders is $71,287 and the average debt among PhD holders is $159,625. Borrowers who hold master’s degrees owe an average of $71,318 each. The average law school debt exceeds $100,000 and the average medical school debt is in excess of $200,000. Today’s graduate students are three times more likely to borrow for school than graduate students in 1995. The average graduate school debt has also more than doubled since 1995.  In almost all cases, graduate or professional students are considered independent students for the purposes of completing their FAFSA form. This means graduate students generally are not required to provide parent information.

Paying Off Student Loans

The way it begins: your loan servicer will provide you with a loan repayment schedule that states when your first payment is due, the number and frequency of payments, and the amount of each payment. Your billing statement will tell you how much to pay. Your monthly payment amount depends on your repayment plan. If you signed up for electronic communication, pay attention to your email. Most loan servicers send an email when your billing statement is ready for you to access online. Educationdata.org says that 48.9% of students who borrow money to attend school are still paying off loans 20 years later.  On its website, the Department of Education issues the following statement: “REMEMBER: Your federal student loans can’t be canceled or forgiven because you didn’t get the education or job you expected or you didn’t complete your education (unless you couldn’t complete your education because your school closed).”Clearly, some loan holders are struggling to keep up. One out of every ten Americans has defaulted on a student loan, and 7.8% of all student loan debt is in default, says Educationdata.org. An average of 15% of student loans are in default at any given time.

Refinancing Student Loans

To take advantage of very low interest rates and flexibility in repayment time frames, some people choose to refinance their federal student loans with a private loan servicer. By comparing student loan refinancing rate, loan holders can choose a deal that works for them. The private company pays off the federal loan and begins a new loan with the customer. There are pros and cons to refinancing. By doing so, private loan holders lose out on some benefits available to those with federal student loans. Those include:
  • Losing access to temporary loan payment relief through approved periods (deferment or student loan forbearance) when you do not have to make payments because of financial hardship, continuing your education, or military service
  • No interest accumulation on subsidized student loans during periods when payments are deferred
  • Access to repayment plans based on your income that provide loan forgiveness once you have been in repayment for 20 or 25 years
  • Access to various forms of loan forgiveness and discharge, such as Public Service Loan Forgiveness, teacher loan forgiveness, total and permanent disability discharge, and borrower defense to repayment discharge.

The Takeaway

The nation’s student debt has grown in recent years, with the average student borrowing over $30,000 in federal loans to pursue a bachelor’s degree. When it comes to graduate school, the average graduate student loan debt balance is $91,148 among federal borrowers.What this has led to: student loan debt now ranks as the second highest consumer debt category in the nation, second only to mortgage debt.Some federal loan holders seek relief by refinancing their student loans with a private company to secure lower interest rates and pay off their debt faster. By doing so, however, they may lose out on some benefits of the federal loan program.
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About the Author

Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau writes about student loans, mortgages, car insurance, medical debt and many other finance topics for Lantern. A veteran of the magazine business, she has edited stories on personal finance for Good Housekeeping and DuJour magazines and has written articles for The Wall Street Journal, Readers' Digest, Parade, Town & Country and Lifetime/A&E, among others. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan.
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