EBRI Issue Brief

Student Loan Debt: Who Has It and How Much?

Jan 28, 2021 25  pages


A pressing issue for those seeking a college education is the high cost, which commonly results in American families amassing student loan debt. The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) is exploring the far-reaching financial implications of student loan debt for families who have it.

This Issue Brief examines the incidence of student loan debt among American families, including trends going back to 1992, based on data from the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances (SCF). It also looks at the amount of outstanding student loan debt and required payments across many demographic characteristics. Lastly, the amount of other assets held, particularly defined contribution plan assets, is compared between those with and without student loans.

Key findings are:

  • The percentage of American families with student loan debt increased from 10.5 percent in 1992 to 21.4 percent in 2019 — a leveling off of the steep increase through 2016, where the percentage peaked at 22.3 percent.
  • The distribution of the families who have student loan debt across key characteristics vs. those who don’t varied widely:
  • Those with student loan debt were younger: In 2019, 66.7 percent of the families having student loan debt had heads younger than age 45, and 40.5 percent were families with heads younger than age 35. In contrast, just 29.6 percent of those without debt had heads younger than age 45.
  • Those with student loan debt had more education: Of families with this debt, 83.7 percent had heads with at least some college education in 2019, compared with 59.7 percent of those without student loan debt.
  • Those with student loan debt had higher incomes: Over 55 percent (57.5 percent) of families with student loan debt had incomes in the top 50 percent of all families in 2019, compared with 47.1 percent for those without student loans.
  • While the families with the youngest heads had the highest percentage with student loan debt, families with older heads had larger increases in the percentage with student loan debt. The percentage of families with heads under age 35 who had student loan debt increased 70 percent since 1992 (24.4 percent in 1992 to 41.4 percent in 2019). By comparison, the percentage of families with heads ages 45–54 who had student loan debt grew 309 percent, and the percentage of families with heads ages 55–64 who had student loan debt grew 321 percent.
  • Further, families with a Black/African American head were 50 percent more likely than families with white, non-Hispanic heads to hold student loan debt (20.0 percent and 30.2 percent, respectively).
  • The median outstanding student loan balance increased from $5,704 in 1992 to $22,000 in 2019 (a 286 percent increase). The average student loan balance had a similar increase from 1992 to 2019 ($12,498 to $40,550 — a 224 percent growth).
  • Families with heads younger than age 35 with at least a college degree appeared to be particularly struggling with student loan debt. This group had higher required monthly loan payments with a median at $300 and a median percentage of family income of 4.9 percent.  

A particularly troubling finding is that those who obtained student loans but did not finish their college degree had a lower likelihood of defined contribution (DC) plan ownership, and when they did have a DC plan balance, it was smaller than for those who did finish college with a student loan. In short, these families end up with the costs but not the benefits of attending college.

Nevertheless, student loan debt can be considered an investment that helps individuals obtain a better job with higher earnings that cannot be reached without a college degree. Thus, in aggregate, student loan debt is overwhelmingly held by families with incomes in the top half, with a net worth in the top half, or who have heads with a college degree or higher. Consequently, those holding student loan debt either have a higher ability or have a higher potential ability to pay for expenses than American families having lower incomes or net worths or having heads with lower educational attainment.