More than half of all American students now have to go into debt to get through college, and their average student loan debt topped $37,500 in 2020. Collectively, they owe nearly $1.6 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

As any recent college student—or parent of a student—knows, obtaining a degree requires a much bigger financial sacrifice today than it did a generation or two ago. Over the past three decades, the average cost to attend a public four-year institution has nearly tripled, and it more than doubled at private four-year schools, according to the College Board.

For many Americans, footing the bill through savings and investments simply isn’t sustainable. The upshot is that more students and families are relying on loans to pursue higher education, and the average student loan debt keeps growing.

Key Takeaways

  • Soaring college costs and pressure to compete in the job marketplace are big factors for student loan debt.
  • More than half of American students now need to borrow to pay their way through college.
  • Borrowers who don’t complete their degrees are more likely to default.

Overall Average Student Debt

How big a role do student loans play at today’s colleges and universities? Here is a snapshot of borrowing in 2020.

Student Loans in 2020: A Snapshot
$1.57 trillion Amount of student loan debt outstanding in the United States
54% Percentage of college attendees taking on debt, including student loans, to pay for their education
$37,584 Average amount of student loan debt per borrower
14% Percentage of adults carrying student loan debt
6.5% Amount of student debt that’s at least 90 days past due or in default
Sources: Experian, Federal Reserve, EducationData.org

The total amount of outstanding student loans reached an all-time high in 2020, at $1.57 trillion, according to Experian spokesperson Amanda Garofalo. Based on the current rate of growth, aggregate student loan debt could reach $2 trillion by 2024 and $3 trillion by 2038, according to the website SavingforCollege.com.

The soaring cost of college is certainly a big factor in that growing debt load. The average in-state student at a four-year public university spends $25,396 for one academic year, according to EducationData.org. Private colleges are even pricier, with an average published annual cost of $53,102, $35,801 of it going to tuition and fees.

Growth of Student Loan Debt (in Trillions)
2020 $1.57
2019 $1.41
2018 $1.33
2017 $1.28
2016 $1.17
2015 $1.13
2014 $1.06
Source: Experian

Average Loan Balances

Roughly 43% of all Americans who went to college took on some form of debt in order to do so, according to the Federal Reserve, but that number is even higher for today’s students, about 54% of whom need to borrow to cover their educational costs.

Student loans are by far the most common borrowing options (93% of those who hold education debt took out student loans). However, 31% of people used other forms of borrowing, including credit cards (24%), home equity lines of credit (7%), and other types of credit (12%).

Most of this debt is carried by younger adults. Borrowers between the ages of 25 and 34 had roughly $500 billion in federal student loan debt as of the fourth quarter of 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Adults ages 35 to 49 carried even more debt, with student loan balances totaling $602 billion. People who are 50 to 61, meanwhile, owe about $262 billion in student loan debt.

Uptick in Delinquencies

About two in 10 adults who took out student loans were behind on their payments, according to the latest figures available from the Federal Reserve, and 6.5% of all student loan debt was at least 90 days delinquent or in default. However, these numbers actually understate the problem, thanks to emergency relief measures regarding student loan repayments that were put into effect in March 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic began. Those measures halted collections on defaulted student loans and suspended loan repayments. An executive order signed by President Biden on his first day of office extended the relief measures through at least Sept. 30, 2021.

About 27% of people who entered college in the 2003-2004 academic year have since defaulted, notes Judith Scott-Clayton, an associate professor of economics and education at Columbia University and a former Brookings Institution expert, according to data released by the U.S. Department of Education in October 2017. She concludes that if that growth continues at its current pace, roughly 38% of borrowers in that age bracket will default at some point by the year 2023.

People who get advanced degrees tend to accumulate more debt but are also likely to make payments on their student loans on time.

Borrowers who never completed a degree tend to have a harder time paying off their loans. About 37% of people who took out student loans but never completed an associate or bachelor’s degree are behind on their payments.

Though people with more advanced degrees tend to take on more debt, they’re more likely to make their student loan payments on time. Of the former college students with less than $10,000 of outstanding debt, 18% are delinquent. It goes up to 22% for those with debt loads between $10,000 and $24,999. However, only 16% of adults with $100,000 or more in loans are behind on payments.

Economic Impact of Debt Cancellation

The sheer size of student debt can be characterized as a weight on the U.S. economy as well as a burden on the millions of individuals who owe it. About 92% of student loan debt is backed by the U.S. government. That fact has made it a political issue. Some Democratic candidates in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election suggested canceling some of or all student debt.

No action has been taken, but at least one of those candidates, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, is still seeking action on the issue. In September 2020 she and then Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York introduced a resolution urging the next president to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt for each borrower. They say that this can be done by a president’s executive order rather than through legislation.

The American Rescue Plan passed by Congress and signed by President Biden in March 2021 includes a provision that student loan forgiveness issued between Jan. 1, 2021, and Dec. 31, 2025 will not be taxable to the recipient.

Pros and Cons of Debt Cancellation

Moody’s Investor Service predicts wiping out student debt would yield a stimulus to economic activity that is comparable to tax cuts in the near term, according to reporting by CNBC. Over the longer term, it could increase homeownership and boost the creation of small businesses. Outright debt cancellation would boost real gross domestic product (GDP) by $86 billion to $108 billion per year, according to one study from Bard College’s Levy Economics Institute.

However, analysts warn of the risk of moral hazard caused by implying that the cost of your decisions will be borne by someone else. This could lead to even higher student debt burdens, as borrowers assume forgiveness will be ongoing. Another argument suggests that forgiving student loan balances provides, at best, a weak stimulus to the economy, because the savings are realized in small amounts over a long period of time, depending on how much a borrower pays back monthly with full or partial forgiveness.

Average Student Loan Debt FAQs

Here are some answers to commonly asked questions about student loan debt in the U.S. and the U.K.

What Percentage of the U.S. Population Has Student Loan Debt?

As of 2019, about 14% of all American adults were saddled with student debt, according to Experian. That figure reflects the growing importance of a college degree to getting a well-paying job. It also reflects just how much college costs have increased: As noted above, 54% of those who attend college, or their parents, have to take out loans to do it.

How Much Is the Average Student Loan Debt in the U.K.?

Students graduating from universities in England in 2020 will owe an average of £40,280 in student loan debt, compared with just under £25,000 for graduates of Welsh universities, £23,520 for graduates in Northern Ireland, and £13,890 for graduates of Scottish universities. Those figures are vastly higher than they were in the year 2000 when indebtedness for graduates in all three countries was under £3,000.

How Do You Get Your Student Loans Forgiven?

The U.S. government will currently forgive, cancel, or discharge some or all of an individual’s student loan debt only under a number of specific circumstances. Teachers in low-income schools and public service employees may be eligible for forgiveness of a portion of their debt. People who are disabled may be eligible for discharge of the debt.

The Federal Student Aid office indicates that those who think they may qualify for loan forgiveness should contact the student loan servicer for their loans. That is the company that handles the loan payments.

As noted above, a federal COVID-19 emergency relief measure suspended student loan repayments from March 2020 until at least Jan. 31, 2021. Collections on payments that are in default also were halted. This is a suspension of repayment, not a cancellation or even a reduction of the debt.

The Bottom Line

Most students who attend college are hoping to earn a degree that will dramatically increase their earning power after graduation. Still, for many adults, much of those earnings will have to go toward paying back student loans. Currently, about 54% of students need to borrow in order to pay for tuition and fees, and among those who do, the average balance is a hefty $32,731. That’s a heavy burden to carry, especially before someone has earned their first professional paycheck.