One of Five Households Has Student Loan Debt

Burden is greatest on the young and poor, report reveals.

April 8, 2013

About one-fifth (19%) of the nation’s households owed student debt in 2010—more than double the share two decades earlier and a significant rise from the 15% that owed such debt in 2007, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of newly available government data.

The Pew Research analysis also finds that a record 40% of all households headed by someone younger than age 35 owe such debt—the highest share among any age group.

It also finds that, whether computed as a share of household income or assets, the relative burden of student loan debt is greatest for households in the bottom fifth of the income spectrum, even though members of such households are less likely than those in other groups to attend college in the first place.

Since 2007, the incidence of student debt has increased in nearly every demographic and economic category, as has the size of that debt.

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Among households owing student debt, the average outstanding student loan balance grew from $23,349 in 2007 to $26,682 in 2010. Most debtor households had less than $50,000 in outstanding student debt in 2010, but the share of households owing elevated amounts has increased.

In 2007, 10% of student debtors owed more than $54,238. By 2010, 10% of student debtor households owed more than $61,894 (after adjusting for inflation).

While every income group had more total student loan debt in 2010 than in 2007, the increases were greatest at the two extremes of the income distribution—households in the lowest fifth of households by annual income and in the highest fifth—than in the middle three-fifths.

In 2010, the least affluent fifth of households owed 13% of the outstanding student debt, up from 11% in 2007. Similarly, the share of the outstanding student debt pie owed by the richest fifth of households rose from 28% in 2007 to 31% in 2010.

While those at the upper end of the income scale are more likely than others to owe student loan debt, the relative burden of student loans is much greater for those at the lower end.

In 2010, outstanding student debt was nearly a quarter (24%) of the household income of the lowest fifth of households by annual income. By comparison, student loan debt accounted for only 7% of household income for those in the ninth decile of household income, and only 2% for those in the 10th decile (90% or higher).

Student debt represented 15 cents of every dollar of household income for the lowest fifth of households in 2007. Even with the recent run-up, educational debt represents a much smaller share of household income for the richest fifth of households in comparison to the lowest fifth of households by annual income.