Student debt

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Student loans can be used to meet financial need of students in higher education when personal resources, grants, and scholarships are insufficient for the cost of attendance. A student's debt is the sum of the amount borrowed and interest accrued minus payments made. While several countries offer students loans of various types, the size of student debt in the US has increased to what some consider crisis levels.[1][2]

As of June 2018, Forbes reported total US student debt was $1.52 trillion and that 44.2 million people owed debt.[3] The average student debt is $38,390. The median student debt is between $10,000 and $25,000, a fact that may be surprising to those who follow the headlines about the student loan crisis. In fact, only 2% of the borrowers owe $100,000 or more. The table below shows the distribution of outstanding balances.[4] Student debt is so ubiquitous that 68 members of the U.S. Congress (13%) either owe debt themselves or have family members who owe student debt. According to Roll Call, “Collectively, the 44 Democrats and 24 Republicans have higher education liabilities of $2.5 million, according to recent financial disclosures. The median student loan debt is $15,000, while average debt is $37,000.”[5] In this respect, Congressional borrowers mirror the general population.

The lent amount, often referred to as a student loan or the debts may be owed to the school (or the bank) if the student has dropped classes and withdrawn from the school. Withdrawing from a school, especially if a low (or no-income student) has withdrawn with a failing grade, could deprive the student of the ability of further attendance by disqualifying the student of necessary financial aid. Student loans also differ in many countries in the strict laws regulating renegotiating and bankruptcy. Due payments may be a retroactive penalty for services rendered by the school to the individual, including room and board.

As with most other types of debt, student debt may be considered defaulted after a given period of non-response to requests by the school or the lender for information, payment or negotiation. At that point, the debt is turned over to a Student Loan Guarantor or a collection agency.

In the United States, the “Congress created a rule called the ‘Cohort Default rate’. Annually the Department of Education evaluates the proportion of students who have received student loans and have withdrawn from college, and have defaulted on their federal government backed loans.”[citation needed] If that nonpayment (default) rate is too high, the college will be refused, the privilege of having government financial aid available to their students. Also, you can not get federal financial aid if you don‘t have a passing grade or if you are not showing them that you are committed.[6] According to Adam Looney, and Constantine Yannelis with the Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, in 2011, “borrowers at for-profit and 2-year institutions represented almost half of student-loan borrowers leaving school and starting to repay loans, and accounted for 70 percent of student loan defaults." [7] This rule was an instantaneous achievement, ‘there were more than fifteen hundred for profit colleges were pushed out of the system’. Colleges have to change their funding habits to get in line with the government guidelines. Many colleges are continuously forced to lower their nonpayment rates, down.” The number of defaulters has not changed, it is just the way the government tracks them.[8]


Origin and Evolution of US Student Loans[9]

In 1958, the National Defense Education Act established financial aid programs for students majoring in STEM disciplines, foreign languages, and teaching. This program included grants, scholarships and loans. In 1965, the loan program was expanded to students with demonstrated financial need under the Federal Family Education Loan Program. Banks and private institutions made the loans which were subsidized and guaranteed by the federal government.

Between 1992 and 1993, the federal government begin direct funding of student loans and established unsubsidized Stafford loans for students whose financial need is not fully met by the subsidized loan program. The financial turmoil of the Great Recessions, caused most private lenders to stop making subsidized loans; the federal government is the main issuer of student loans. Finally, in 2010, the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010[10] required all federal loans (Stafford loans[11]) to be direct loans. Private lenders do offer student loans, and these are generally more expensive than federal loans.[12]

Many factors are accountable for student debt. The growing problem of student debt has become more prominent, inspiring numerous documentaries that examine the causes and effects. One factor is amount of interest on the loans. Another factor is the new guidelines developed by the federal government. There are now new rules deciding who can borrow, as well as how much debt they can take on. Colleges and universities have been increasing the costs for students to attend schools. This is subsequently increasing the amount of debt the students take on as student loans. Reports have shown that borrowers who finished college in the early 1990s were able to manage their student loans without an enormous burden. The average debt increased 58% since in the seven years from 2005 to 2012. The debt for students in the United States rose from $17,233 in 2005 to $27,253 in 2012.[13] Some blame the economy for the debt increases, but in the same 7-year period credit card debt and auto debt have decreased.[13] According to the American Center for Progress' report on the Student Debt Crisis, within the past three decades the cost of attaining a college degree has drastically increased by more than 1,000 percent.[14]

If student debt went in rhythm with inflation since 1992, then graduates would not be facing this immense debt pressure. From 2015 to 2017, the student loan debt in United States saw a steady ascension, where New Hampshire carried the highest average debt per student, at $27,167.[15] Newer data, as of 2018, reflects an even larger crisis and cumulative level of student debt.

As of 2018, a total of 44.2 Million borrowers now owe a total of over $1.5 Trillion in student debt. In addition to more borrowers, and the total amount owed having more than doubled (up 250%) from $600 Billion to $1.5 Trillion in 10 years, according to Forbes Magazine [16], the rate of delinquency greater than 90 days, or default, has doubled to over 11% nationwide, according to the Federal Reserve.[17]

The US "Student Loan Mess"[edit]

In The Student Loan Mess: How Good Intentions Created a Trillion-Dollar Problem (2014), authors Joel and Eric Best identified four overlapping periods of crisis related to US student loans. The periods are (1) 1958-1972 with the first federal student loans and the creation of Sallie Mae, (2) Mid-1960s-1978 with high rates of default to the near impossibility of student loan discharge in bankruptcy, (3) Mid-1990s-present and "crushing debt", and (4) 2012-the present with widespread economic damage. [18]

US student loan servicers[edit]

US student loan servicers include Great Lakes Educational Loan Services, Navient, FedLoan Servicing (PHEAA), MOHELA, HESC/EdFinancial, CornerStone, Granite State - GSMR, OSLA Servicing, and Debt Management and Collections System. [19]


United States[edit]

Student loan debt rose from $480.1 billion (3.5% GDP) in Q1 2006 to $1,397.3 billion (7.5% GDP) in Q3 2016.
Distribution of student loan debt in the U.S.

There are two types of loans students borrow in the US: Federal loans and Private loans. Federal loans have a fixed interest rate, usually lower than private loans' interest, set annually by the congress. The direct subsidized loan with the maximum amount of $5,500 has an interest rate of 4.45%, while the direct plus loan with the maximum amount of $20,500 has an interest rate of 7%.[20] As for private loans, there are more options like fixed interest rate, variable interest rate, and income based monthly plans whose interest rates vary depending on the lender, credit history and cosigners. The average interest rate for a private loan in 2017 was 9.66%.[21] The Economist reported in June 2014 that U.S. student loan debt exceeded $1.2 trillion with over 7 million debtors in default. In 2014, there was approximately $1.3 trillion of outstanding student loan debt in the U.S. that affected 44 million borrowers who had an average outstanding loan balance of $37,172.[21] As of 2018, outstanding student loan debt totals 1.5 trillion.[22]

The interest rates are a major factor in the alarming debt numbers, however, the booming of prices of college is another major factor for US tremendous student debt. The Public universities increased their fees by a total of 27% over the five years ending in 2012, or 20% adjusted for inflation. Public university students paid an average of almost $8,400 annually for in-state tuition, with out-of-state students paying more than $19,000. For two decades ending in 2012, college costs rose 1.6% more than inflation each year. Government funding per student fell 27% between 2007 and 2012. Student enrollments rose from 15.2 million in 1999 to 20.4 million in 2011, but fell 2% in 2012.[23][24] Bloomberg reported in July 2014 that: "The biggest growth in the program came in the past decade, as student debt rose an average of 14 percent a year, to $966 billion in 2012 from $364 billion in 2004, according to New York Fed data."[25]

There were around 37 million student loan borrowers with outstanding student loans in 2013. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, outstanding student loan debt in the United States lies between $902 Billion and $1 Trillion with around $864 Billion in Federal student loan debt.[26] As of Quarter 1 in 2012, the average student loan balance for all age groups is $24,301.[26] About one-quarter of borrowers owe more than $28,000; 10% of borrowers owe more than $54,000; 3% owe more than $100,000; and less than 1%, or 167,000 people, owe more than $200,000.[26] Of the 37 million borrowers who have outstanding student loan balances, 14%, or about 5.4 million borrowers, have at least one past due student loan account.[26] For every student loan borrower who defaults, at least two more borrowers become delinquent without default.[26] In 2010 for the first time ever, student loan debt exceeded credit card debt and in 2011 student debt surpassed auto loans (both of which were decreasing).[27] According to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of, student loan debt is growing by $3,000 per second.[27] According to a report by The Institute for College Access and Success the average debt from those who graduated in 2013 topped $30,000 in six states and was only below $20,000 in one state.[28] Data released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York showed that in the fourth quarter of 2014 delinquency rates for students dipped to the point where approximately one in nine student loans is past due.[29] As of 2015 over half of outstanding student loans are in deferral, delinquency or default.[30] Rising student loan debt is exacerbating wealth inequality.[31]

Student loan borrowers that attended a for profit, and two year community colleges, in comparison, earn low annual salaries; an average of $22,000 for people withdrawing from schools as of 2010. This means that these people have troubles paying back their loans. The new evidence is reliable with the previous data. For example, the statistics presenting that default rates are essentially lower within the demographic of borrowers with large loans than within borrowers with small loans. However, the new evidence which goes back twenty years, shows how much the scenery of borrowing has changed. Currently, most borrowers are older and attended a for profit or two year community college. About ten years ago, the standard borrower was an established student at a four-year university.[32]

In recent years, tuition has been rising due to the cuts of government funding in education. As an example, more specifically, the University of Pittsburgh has had an increase in tuition of 3.9 percent for the academic school year of 2014-15. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education ranked Pitt as the most expensive public university for tuition and fees at $16,240, just ahead of Penn State University.[33]

In 2005, the difference in median annual income between those with a bachelor's degree vs. those with a high school diploma was $16,638, though this varies considerably by field of study.[34]

In January 2019, the Federal Reserve said that student loan debt has more than doubled in the last decade, and is forcing many in the millennial generation to delay buying homes.[35] A 2019 survey by Bankrate found that student loan debt is also forcing millennials to delay other financial and life milestones, such as building emergency savings, saving for retirement, or paying off other debts.[36]

Balance Owed Number of Borrowers Share of Borrowers Cumulative Share of Borrowers
Less than $5,000 8,769,700 20% 20%
$5,000 - $10,000 7,554,100 17% 37%
$10,000 - $25,000 12,368,200 28% 64%
$25,000 - $50,000 8,483,600 19% 83%
$50,000 - $75,000 3,539,000 8% 91%
$75,000 - $100,000 1,503,800 3% 95%
$100,000 - $150,000 1,238,200 3% 98%
$150,000 - $200,000 554,500 1% 99%
$200,000+ 521,600 1% 100%


Canada ranks second in the world behind Korea for the percentage of people in the age group of 25-34 who have completed tertiary education .[37] But Canadians are not prone to the rapid accumulation of student loans. As of September 2012, the average debt for a Canadian leaving University was 28,000 Canadian dollars, and that accumulated debt takes an average of 14 years to fully repay based on an average starting salary of $39,523.[38] To temporarily help their low income struggling citizens with student debt, Canada has a program called "interest relief". It grants 6 months free of mandatory payments, for a maximum of 30 months. The Canadian government pays for the interest on those loans during the grace period, so the loan amount is the same at the end of the grace period.[39] Also, students are relieved of their debt after 15 years.[40] As a nation, Canadians have accumulated more than $15 billion of student loan debt as they continue to fight tuition rates from further skyrocketing.[41]

United Kingdom[edit]

There is concern about the level of student debt in the United Kingdom. There is also concern about possible changes in government policy forcing graduates to pay back more.[42] Andrew Adonis claims most student loans will never be repaid, Adonis also states that university leaders have failed to improve teaching standards but rewarded themselves handsomely with high salaries. The Institute for Fiscal Studies claims that 75% of graduates will never repay all their debts. Andrew McGettigan, loans system expert said, “Until the government removes their right to retrospectively change terms, then you as a borrower appear to be on the hook to future policy changes".[43] Sebastian Burnside NatWest economist, said “These latest figures show student debt is becoming of greater priority with every passing year. Student debt is the fastest growing type of borrowing and is rapidly becoming economically significant.”[44]


Germany has both private and public universities with the majority being public universities, which is part of the reason their graduates do not have as much debt. For undergraduate studies, public universities are free but have an enrollment fee of no more than €250 per year which is roughly US$305. [45]Their private universities cost an average of €10,000 a semester which is about US$12,000.[45] Private universities account for 7.1% enrollment with the rest attending the public universities.[46] The private universities have a smaller teacher to student ratio and tend to offer more specialized programs which is why Germany is experiencing a boom in private universities enrollment in recent years for majors like law and medicine. [46]However, most students still prefer public universities due to the drastic difference in tuition cost. The only expense students take out loans for in public universities is the living cost which ranges from €3600 to €8,200 a year depending on the university location.[47] However, the repayment of this loan is interest free and no borrower pays more than €10,000 regardless of the borrowed amount. [47]The average debt at graduation is €5,600 which is US$6,680.[48] The chance to gain a bachelor's through well respected universities at a reasonable price without interest packed loans attracts many foreign students as seen through increased enrollment of students from all around the world.


France offers a reasonable price for college. The average tuition for a bachelor's degree is around 190 euros a year, around 620 euros a year for engineering degrees, around 260 euros a year for a master's degree and around 400 euros a year for a PhD.[49] These prices are similar to its neighboring country, Germany. The cost of living in France is an average of 500 to 1250 euros a month depending on the city which is not included in the tuition price.[50] Students are able to take out loans in order to pay for these expenses. Only less than 2% students take out loans as there is financial assistance to pay for the full tuition or half of the tuition for low income families depending on their needs.[51]


Student loans are an unknown concept in Pakistan, like most third world countries. Students attend college through the help of their parents who spend majority of their income on their children's education and some students work to help out with the tuition. The top universities in Pakistan are mostly located in the provinces of Sindh and Punjab. There are 177 universities in the country. [52]To better understand this number, let's consider the US which has a population 1.65 times the population of Pakistan and has 5900 colleges. That means the US has about 3575 universities for the same amount of population as Pakistan.

Pakistan has universities ranking in the top 250 and top 700 in the world.[53] The average tuition cost for these universities is around 402,000 Pakistani Rupees ($3500). But this is not the only expense citizens have to pay for; most people pay for books, food, bus or van to get to their university and a tuition center for help with the tough curriculum which adds up to about 130,000 Rupees ($1147).[53] Even though this seems like a small total to someone from the first world, this is very expensive for Pakistanis as the average salary is about $7,800 a year.[54] The majority of parents cannot afford college education for their children which is why only 12% of all 18-24 years olds are attending college.[55]


Excluding students from outside Switzerland, the EU, or EEA, there is no tuition fee for students studying at Finnish Universities.[56] There are, however, many exemptions for non-Finnish citizens studying at a Finnish University to not pay tuition as well. In addition to going to college for free, students also receive student grants from the government. These grants are generally used for housing and compensates for up to 80% of rent for students who live independently and/or not qualified to receive child benefits.[57] Through Kela, 40% of students take out student loans in addition to student grants. Student loans average to about 650 EUR a month for higher education within Finland and an average amount of 800 EUR a month for Finnish students studying abroad.[58] These loans are not through Kela itself but is a guaranteed loan through the student's bank of choice. Besides just student loans and grants, Finland also compensates its citizens, and others that qualify, a meal subsidy, school transport subsidy, and a student loan compensation for students who finish schooling in a target time.[59][60]  

In August 2017, Finland saw student loan drawdowns double to 143 million EUR from August 2016 as a result of being able to borrow 650 EUR a month from the previous 400 EUR a month. The reform for financial aid resulted in students that qualify for government-guaranteed loans to increase to over 60%.[61]

Social and political reactions[edit]

The growing problem of student debt has caused many reactions from young people throughout the United States. As a result, the Occupy Colleges and Occupy Student Debt movements merged in 2012 in an effort to gain support from students around the country.[62] There have been significant efforts made via social media for the Occupy Student Debt campaign. In particular, students all over the United States have posted their personal student debt testimonies.[63] While some success stories of students eliminating debt have been reported on,[64] they are met with heavy skepticism. Since last October, Occupy Student Debt has provided a platform for over 800 students to share their horror stories.[62] Because of this, other organizations such as, Rebuild the Dream, Education Trust, and the Young Invincibles, have joined in the effort and started similar platforms. The Occupy College movement itself has staged over 10 direct actions.[62][65] They have also gathered over 31,000 signatures on the White House's petition site, “We the People”. As a result, President Obama announced the Pay as you Earn initiative. Another petition, titled 'Support the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012' on, which seeks similar relief for student borrowers, has gotten over one million signatures.[66][67][68] HR 4170: “The Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012” would give relief to borrowers with both federal and private student loans.[69] HR 4170 also includes the “10-10” programs, which allows borrowers to pay 10% of their discretionary income for ten years with the remaining balance forgiven afterwards.[69]

In April 2012, student loan debt reached US$1 trillion.[70] Severity of the student debt burden represents such a threat to the middle class that some have demanded a general bailout.[71][72] Anthropologist David Graeber, author of Debt: The First 5000 Years, argues that student debt is "destroying the imagination of youth":

If there’s a way of a society committing mass suicide, what better way than to take all the youngest, most energetic, creative, joyous people in your society and saddle them with, like $50,000 of debt so they have to be slaves? There goes your music. There goes your culture. There goes everything new that would pop out. And in a way, this is what’s happened to our society. We’re a society that has lost any ability to incorporate the interesting, creative and eccentric people.[73]

In 2014, a Chilean activist, artist Francisco Tapia, known as "Papas Fritas" (French Fries) "burned $500 million worth of debt papers" from Viña del Mar University, and displayed the ashes in a van as an art project. "The University was being shut down due to financial irregularities. 'It is a concrete fact that the papers were burned. They are gone, burned completely, and there's no debt,' said Papas Fritas in his first U.S. broadcast interview. 'Since these papers don't exist anymore, there's no way to charge the students.'[74]

On November 12, 2015, students organized rallies at more than 100 college campuses across the United States to protest crippling student loan debt and to advocate for tuition-free higher education at public colleges and universities. The demonstrations took place just days after fast food workers went on strike for a minimum wage of $15 an hour and union rights.[75]

In 2015, Central Saint Martins student Brooke Purvis announced that he would burn his student loan as a form of protest art, raising awareness about student debt. It is argued the art work addresses the subject matter of the materialism of money and brings to light the political issues of the U.K student loan system.[76][77][78][79][80][81][82][83]

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., contends that the next president elected in 2016 should push for all outstanding student loan debt to be forgiven.[84]

A February 2018 research paper from the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College argues that government cancellation student debt in the United States would result in rising consumer demand, along with economic growth and increased employment. Over the following decade, the GDP would increase by between $86 billion and $108 billion annually, which would result in an increase of between 1.2 and 1.5 million jobs and a decreased unemployment rate of 0.22 to 0.36 percent.[85]

US student loan resistance groups[edit]

The most visible student loan resistance groups in the US are the Debt Collective, Strike Debt, and Student Loan Justice. [86][87]

See also[edit]


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  5. ^ Roll Call Retrieved April 17, 2019. Missing or empty |title= (help)
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  76. ^ "Meet Student Brooke Purvis, Who's Burning His Student Loan In Protest Against Capitalism".
  77. ^ Aftab Ali (30 October 2015). "Central Saint Martins artist, Brooke Purvis, to set fire to his student loan in protest against capitalism". The Independent.
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  86. ^
  87. ^

Further reading[edit]

  • Best, J. and Best, E. (2014). The Student Loan Mess: How Good Intentions Created a Trillion-Dollar Problem. Atkinson Family Foundation.

External links[edit]