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Average Student Loan Debt In the United States: 2024

What Is the Average Student Loan Debt?
Nancy Bilyeau
Nancy BilyeauUpdated January 2, 2024
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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. Exceeding $1.7 trillion as of January 2024.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 since 1980. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) data — as adjusted for inflation — confirms the average cost of tuition, fees, room, and board at U.S. colleges increased 166% over the last four decades using 2022 constant dollars based on the Consumer Price Index.These forces seem to have strengthened one another, leading to what some describe as a crisis. Student loan debt is now the second highest consumer debt category in the nation, according to TransUnion®. It is second to mortgage debt and ranks higher than credit card or auto loan debt.In August 2022, President Joe Biden said that over time “an entire generation is now saddled with unsustainable debt in exchange for an attempt, at least, at a college degree. The burden is so heavy that even if you graduate, you may not have access to the middle-class life that the college degree once provided.”

How Much Student Loan Debt Is There?

According to the latest statistics, over 40 million Americans owe $1.7 trillion in student loan debt. The vast 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 the COVID-19 pandemic. The federal student loan pause ended in the autumn of 2023 as required by the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023.The three-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 also cost the federal government more than $100 billion.As part of the debt ceiling bill negotiated by President Biden and Congress, student loan interest accrual resumed on Sept. 1, 2023, and required payments resumed in October.

Average Student Loan Debt in the United States

The average student loan debt in the U.S. is about $35,000 per borrower, according to TransUnion. In general, it can take 10 years or longer to repay your student loans.Here are the states with the highest overall federal student debt balances as of June 30, 2023:
LocationBalance (in billions)Borrowers (in thousands)Average Balance
New York$94.92,498.1$37,989
Here are the states with the lowest overall federal student debt balances as of June 30, 2023:
LocationBalance (in billions)Borrowers (in thousands)Average Balance
North Dakota$2.790$30,000
South Dakota$3.8119.7$31,746
The above data comes from the federal student loan portfolio by location.Recommended: Student Loans: How Much Do I Owe?

Average Undergraduate Student Loan Debt

The 2022 Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED) found most student loan borrowers with outstanding debt owed less than $25,000 on their educational loans.Students loan borrowers who completed an undergraduate program in 2018 owed the following amounts of education debt on average, according to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Studies (NPSAS) data:
  • Undergraduate certificate recipients owed an average of $14,800
  • Associate degree recipients owed an average of $20,900
  • Bachelor’s degree recipients owed an average of $27,500
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 debt average for graduate school, the amount can be staggering. Student loan borrowers who completed a graduate program in 2018 owed the following amounts of education debt on average, according to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Studies (NPSAS) data:
  • Master’s degree recipients owed an average of $71,800
  • Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) and similar research-driven doctoral degree recipients owed an average of $112,400
  • Professional practice doctoral degree recipients (such as medical doctors and law school graduates) owed an average of $185,100
In almost all cases, graduate or professional students are considered independent students for the purposes of completing their FAFSA® form for grad school. This means graduate students generally are not required to provide parent information.

Paying Off Student Loans

Unless you qualify for student loan forgiveness, borrowers are expected to pay off student debt over time. 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.On its Federal Student Aid website, the U.S. 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).”Recommended: How to Pay Off Student Loans

Refinancing Student Loans

To pursue new interest rates and flexibility in repayment time frames, some people choose to refinance their federal student loans with a private loan servicer. You may pay more interest over the life of the loan if you refinance with an extended term.By comparing student loan refinance rates, 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 the government’s SAVE program for federal student loans, an income-driven repayment plan that can significantly decrease your monthly payment amount compared to all other government repayment plans.
  • 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 (or earlier for some SAVE Plan enrollees)
  • 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 $35,000 to pursue a college education. When it comes to grad school, the average PhD candidate can rack up well above $100K in student debt.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.Holders of federal student loans could be interested in refinancing loans. However, they must bear in mind that refinancing means that loan is no longer eligible for federal forgiveness or income-driven repayment. You may pay more interest over the life of the loan if you refinance with an extended term.Lantern can help you find student loan refinance offers.
Photo credit: iStock/designer491

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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