The average student loan debt in America might make graduation a more somber occasion. Photo: Flickr user Md saad andalib.

Two years ago, student loan debt in America surpassed credit card debt for the first time ever, topping out at more than $1 trillion. While some see this as indicative of a broken education model, others have rightly pointed out that student loans have far more lasting value for society than what we rack up on credit cards.

No matter where you come down on the debate, one thing is clear: The average student loan debt in America is higher than it's ever been. According to The Institute for College Access & Success, students receiving their bachelors in 2013 left school with an average of $19,596 in debt. That number is higher if you only include the 69% of students who actually took out loans: $28,400. 

Adding some clarity to the average student loan debt
But there are so many different scenarios in which student loans are taken out that this number alone doesn't tell you much. You can get a more accurate sense of where you stand among your peers by using figures provided by The College Board.

Admittedly, this data isn't perfect: It doesn't include those who took out loans from for-profit colleges (which have notoriously horrible student loan figures), it only includes data from students who graduated from the same school where they started, and the 2013 graduating class is the most recent for which we have data.

That said, The College Board breaks out one of the biggest differences in student loan data: the difference between public and private (non-profit) four-year institutions.


Per Student

Per Borrower

% of Students Who Borrowed









Source: College Board. 

In constant dollars, these are significant increases since 2000. Per-student debt is up 32% at public schools and 31% at private institutions over that time frame.

Our own Morgan Housel has proposed an education path that would allow students to get their undergraduate degree with minimal levels of debt. In a nut shell, it involves working for a year after high school, going to community college for two years, then transferring and getting your bachelors degree at an in-state institution.

Average student loan debt and advanced degrees
Things get really interesting when we start looking at graduate degrees, where the debt load is noticeably higher.

One glaring data point that doesn't show up here: Of those getting their degree in law or medicine, over 70% end up borrowing more than $60,000. Of course, getting one of these degrees usually translates to much higher lifetime earnings as well.

It's worth noting, however, that these graduates can become slaves to this debt. If they find they don't like their jobs or wish to change careers, they may be unable to make that transition due to debt obligations that won't go away, even in bankruptcy.

In the end, taking on student loan debt is a calculated risk that factors in the amount of debt, the graduate's earnings potential, and how much an individual wants to pursue a certain career.