A Demographic Look at Who Has Student Loan Debt


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, Student Loan Hero 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 Student Loan Hero 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)
Year Median student loan debt % with student loan debt
1989 $5,970 8.9%
1992 $5,900 10.7%
1995 $6,510 11.9%
1998 $11,010 11.3%
2001 $11,550 11.5%
2004 $12,470 13.4%
2007 $14,810 15.2%
2010 $15,320 19.1%
2013 $18,670 19.9%
2016 $20,210 22.3%
2019 $22,000 21.4%
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 Student Loan Hero 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 Student Loan Hero 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)
Year Median student loan debt, white % with student loan debt, white Median student loan debt, Black % with student loan debt, Black Median student loan debt, Hispanic % with student loan debt, Hispanic
1989 $5,970 8.3% $3,980 12.3% $7,960 9.9%
1992 $6,260 10.8% $5,180 12.6% $6,260 8.3%
1995 $6,510 11.6% $5,840 13.7% $6,680 11.7%
1998 $11,480 11.3% $8,020 11.2% $7,860 9.1%
2001 $11,840 11.0% $7,220 14.8% $7,220 11.6%
2004 $13,560 13.7% $11,520 16.5% $6,780 8.2%
2007 $16,050 13.8% $11,360 22.5% $12,340 14.1%
2010 $15,550 18.9% $15,320 24.1% $12,960 14.3%
2013 $19,770 18.4% $16,470 31.2% $14,280 14.1%
2016 $20,310 20.2% $21,270 30.7% $19,140 19.3%
2019 $23,000 20.0% $30,000 30.2% $17,600 14.3%
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)
Year Median student loan debt, no high school diploma % with student loan debt, no high school diploma Median student loan debt, high school diploma % with student loan debt, high school diploma Median student loan debt, some college % with student loan debt, some college Median student loan debt, college degree % with student loan debt, college degree
1989 $3,980 1.5% $5,330 7.0% $5,970 12.7% $7,960 16.1%
1992 $4,470 2.4% $4,650 7.4% $4,830 13.4% $7,490 18.1%
1995 $7,680 2.4% $4,170 8.6% $6,510 16.6% $8,350 18.4%
1998 $5,980 2.6% $5,500 5.6% $8,180 14.8% $18,240 20.0%
2001 $3,900 2.8% $8,380 8.2% $7,940 15.1% $18,050 17.3%
2004 $6,780 3.4% $6,780 6.6% $9,220 18.9% $20,340 20.6%
2007 $7,410 5.8% $7,650 8.8% $13,580 20.2% $24,690 22.5%
2010 $8,010 5.4% $9,430 12.8% $14,140 26.6% $23,560 24.8%
2013 $9,330 4.6% $10,980 12.5% $15,040 26.6% $25,260 27.1%
2016 $10,640 5.8% $12,760 15.0% $16,270 29.0% $31,910 28.5%
2019 $12,000 5.5% $14,000 11.8% $15,700 25.8% $35,000 29.1%
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)
Date Median student loan debt, less than 25 % with student loan debt, less than 25 Median student loan debt, 25 to 49.9 % with student loan debt, 25 to 49.9 Median student loan debt, 50 to 74.9 % with student loan debt, 50 to 74.9 Median student loan debt, 75 to 89.9 % with student loan debt, 75 to 89.9 Median student loan debt, 90 to 100 % with student loan debt, 90 to 100
1989 $6,560 14.5% $3,980 9.2% $7,960 6.8% $7,960 6.4% $3,980 3.4%
1992 $6,440 20.2% $4,650 10.5% $4,650 6.9% $4,470 5.7% $10,210 4.0%
1995 $8,350 19.7% $5,840 12.8% $4,590 9.5% $8,010 6.3% $5,840 4.7%
1998 $15,730 20.3% $6,290 11.6% $10,700 8.3% $5,980 5.4% $12,580 4.0%
2001 $13,290 19.4% $7,220 11.5% $11,550 10.1% $12,130 7.3% $20,220 2.0%
2004 $13,560 23.1% $10,170 14.1% $13,560 10.7% $10,850 6.6% $10,170 4.5%
2007 $14,810 25.5% $14,810 15.3% $12,340 13.0% $14,810 7.9% $23,450 5.8%
2010 $18,850 33.7% $11,780 19.6% $14,140 14.8% $14,140 10.2% $16,500 5.3%
2013 $21,960 36.1% $13,180 19.4% $14,500 14.4% $17,020 12.3% $19,990 5.7%
2016 $26,590 39.4% $17,020 22.2% $15,950 18.4% $15,950 10.8% $27,650 6.5%
2019 $32,000 36.0% $17,000 22.5% $20,000 16.9% $14,500 13.1% $20,000 5.7%
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)
Date Median student loan debt, employee % with student loan debt, employee Median student loan debt, self-employed % with student loan debt, self-employed Median student loan debt, retired % with student loan debt, retired Median student loan debt, other not working % with student loan debt, other not working
1989 $5,970 11.9% $5,970 8.4% $3,980 1.4% $3,980 13.1%
1992 $5,900 14.2% $6,260 10.1% $6,440 2.3% $5,360 14.8%
1995 $6,340 15.6% $6,340 12.3% $4,340 2.0% $9,350 16.0%
1998 $11,010 14.9% $8,490 9.4% $5,500 1.8% $12,580 18.2%
2001 $11,120 15.4% $13,290 9.3% $24,550 0.8% $11,550 20.4%
2004 $12,200 17.7% $20,340 9.4% $6,780 1.9% $10,170 27.6%
2007 $14,810 20.0% $17,280 10.9% $12,340 3.7% $12,340 24.0%
2010 $17,440 24.9% $12,960 17.0% $10,600 4.3% $11,780 28.1%
2013 $19,770 26.7% $15,370 17.4% $16,470 4.6% $13,730 28.7%
2016 $21,270 30.6% $19,140 19.2% $14,890 5.3% $17,020 29.8%
2019 $23,000 29.5% $18,000 17.6% $22,000 4.6% $30,000 27.5%
Source: Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finances

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

Profession Median student loan debt % with student loan debt
Managerial or professional $28,000 32.8%
Technical, sales or services $20,000 25.3%
Other occupation $18,000 22.0%
Retired or other not working $23,700 7.7%

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.



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