In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the state of student debt and how it’s impacted those saddled with it.

Summary of key findings

  • As of the first quarter of 2019, there are an estimated 5.2 million federal student loan borrowers in default, 3.4 million federal student loans in deferment and another 2.7 million in forbearance.
  • An estimated 92% of student loans are federal loans, not private ones.
  • In 2018, 20% of student loan borrowers were behind with their payments.
  • Those aged between 35-49 have the highest total student debt with $548 billion of debt.
  • Women hold almost two-thirds of total outstanding U.S. student debt -- close to $929 billion as of early 2019.
  • The average student loan borrower graduated college with $28,650 in student loan debt in 2017.
  • Connecticut was the state with the highest average student loan balance, at $38,510. Utah had the lowest.

Average student loan debt

The average student loan borrower graduated college with $28,650 in student loan debt in 2017, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. That represents a 1% climb from 2016, where the average student loan debt balance per borrower was $28,350.

An estimated 65% of students who graduated in 2017 took out student loans, and about 15% of that debt consisted of private student loans.

Meanwhile, the average monthly student loan payment (not including borrowers whose payments are in deferment) is $393, reports the U.S. Federal Reserve. However, PayScale estimates that the average college graduate with 0–5 years of experience earns $48,400. That means that recent grads spend, on average, about 10% of their income on student debt payments.

Student loan debt by year

Not surprisingly, student debt levels have risen from year to year. Here’s how the total student loan balance has evolved over time:


Total U.S. Student Loan Balance


$345 billion


$391 billion


$481 billion


$547 billion


$639 billion


$721 billion


$811 billion


$873 billion


$965 billion


$1.079 trillion


$1.155 trillion


$1.231 trillion


$1.316 trillion


$1.386 trillion

Data source:  New York Federal Reserve, Student Loan Data and Demographics.

Student loan debt by state

Though student debt is a national problem, loan balances are higher in some states than in others. As of 2017, here’s what the average student loan balance looked like by state:


Average Student Loan Balance





Rhode Island


New Hampshire




New Jersey












South Dakota


New York


South Carolina


District of Columbia






























West Virginia














North Carolina
























New Mexico




Data source: The Institute for College Access and Success, 2017.

You’ll notice that North Dakota is omitted from the above list. It’s not because North Dakotans magically manage to avoid debt. Rather, there wasn’t enough usable data to calculate an average for borrowers in the state.

Student loan debt by age

You’d think recent college grads would have the highest levels of student debt because they haven't had much time to pay them off since graduation. But actually, among those who took out federal loans, adults aged 35–49 hold that distinction. Here’s how federal student loan balances break down by age, as of Dec. 31, 2018:


Total Student Loan Debt

23 and under

$120 billion


$494 billion


$548 billion


$224 billion

62 and over

$68 billion

Data source:, Portfolio by Age and Debt Size.

Student loan debt by race

Since the U.S. Department of Education doesn’t regularly track borrowers by race, there’s limited data on disparities in borrowing trends, according to a 2016 report by the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization. That same report, however, found that black college graduates owe $7,400 more, on average, than their white peers at graduation -- $23,400 versus $16,000.

Not only are black students more likely to take on student debt than white students, but the aforementioned $7,400 debt gap at graduation is statistically likely to climb over time. In 2008, black graduates held $24,720 more in student loan debt than white graduates ($52,726 versus $28,006) four years post-graduation. Hispanic and Asian graduates, meanwhile, had debt levels similar to white graduates.

Black students are also the most likely to default on their debt, the report found, followed by Hispanic, white, and finally Asian students. An estimated 7.6% of black borrowers default on their loans, compared to 2.4% of white borrowers. And 48% of black borrowers owe more on their federal undergraduate loans after four years than they do at graduation, compared to just 17% of white borrowers.

A 2018 Federal Reserve report confirms that black and Hispanic borrowers are much more likely than white borrowers to fall behind on their loan payments. And white borrowers are three times more likely to have paid off their debt than black or Hispanic borrowers.

Student loan debt by gender

Women tend to borrow more money for college than men. An estimated 41% of female undergraduates took on debt during the 2015–16 academic year, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), compared to 35% of male undergraduates. In fact, the AAUW estimates that females hold almost two-thirds of total outstanding U.S. student debt -- close to $929 billion as of early 2019. And, as of 2016, women with bachelor's degrees had an average of $21,619 in outstanding debt. For men, however, the average debt was just $18,880.

Part of the reason why women carry more outstanding debt boils down to the gender wage gap. Since women are likely to earn less than their male counterparts, they often have a harder time getting ahead on their student loans.

Female college graduates with full-time jobs start out earning 18% less than their male counterparts one year after graduation. By four years post-graduation, that gap reaches 20%. As such, women are slower to repay what they owe.

Total federal student loan debt

Student debt comes in two main varieties -- federal loans given out by the U.S. Department of Education and private loans given out by banks and other non-government lenders. An estimated 92% of student loans are federal according to academic data firm MeasureOne. Of the 44.7 million borrowers with student loan debt, 43 million owe money in federal loans.

Here’s how those numbers break down by loan program, as of the first quarter of 2019:

Loan Program

Student Debt Outstanding

Number of Borrowers

Direct Loans

$1.163 trillion

34.5 million

FFEL Loans

$277 billion

13.1 million

Perkins Loans

$6.9 billion

2.2 million

Data source:, Federal Student Aid Portfolio Summary.

All told, that's $1.447 trillion in outstanding federal student loans.

Federal Direct Loans are government-funded student loans offered to undergraduates, graduate students, and parents of college students. These loans can be subsidized or unsubsidized, and of the three categories above, Direct Loans are the only type that still exists.

FFEL loans were once issued under the Federal Family Education Loan program, and those loans were private ones subsidized and guaranteed by the federal government. That program ended in 2010. Perkins Loans, meanwhile, were government loans that featured a lengthy grace period and a low fixed interest rate, but they stopped being issued in 2017.

Total private student loan debt

Private loans comprise an estimated 7.71% of total outstanding U.S. student loan debt, according to MeasureOne. And that's a good thing, because private loans don't come with the same protections as federal loans, making it easier for borrowers to fall behind.

To date, there's $119.31 billion in outstanding private student loan debt. That may seem like a tiny amount compared to the amount of federal student debt out there, but it's important to note that private student loan debt has been increasing year over year.

Student loan repayment status

Not everyone who takes out student loans can make good on those payments. Unfortunately, skipping payments can wreak havoc on a borrower’s credit score, making it more difficult to get approved for future financing. Not only that, but those who default on their student debt risk having their wages garnished, thereby creating a serious financial hardship.

The Federal Reserve reported in 2018 that, among borrowers who took out student loans to fund their own education, 20% were behind on their payments. Those who didn’t complete their degrees were the most likely to fall behind.

Federal student loan repayment

Federal loan borrowers are considered to be in default once they go 270 days without making a payment. As of the first quarter of 2019, there are an estimated 5.2 million federal student loan borrowers in default. By contrast, 18.6 million borrowers are current on their federal loan payments.

As mentioned earlier, federal student loans come with certain borrower protections, including the ability to pause payments temporarily without the risk of wage garnishment or other such repercussions. Federal loan borrowers can get this relief via deferment or forbearance. With deferment, borrowers avoid accruing interest during the period in which payments aren’t being made. With forbearance, borrowers are still responsible for paying interest on their loans.

Furthermore, it’s possible to defer student loans for up to a period of three years. Forbearance, on the other hand, is a protection only offered for up to 12 months. As of the first quarter of 2019, there are an estimated 3.4 million federal student loans in deferment and another 2.7 million in forbearance.

Private student loan repayment

It’s easier to default on private student loans than on federal loans. In some cases, a private lender will consider a borrower to be in default after a single missed payment (though they often aren’t considered to be in default until three months go by without a payment). Unlike federal loans, there’s no single threshold for being in default; the rules involved are spelled out in individual private loan agreements.

Borrowers who fall behind on their private student loan payments will see their credit scores decline. Additionally, private lenders can send outstanding loans to collections agencies once borrowers fall behind on payments. Those that have trouble collecting their debt can then sue borrowers for repayment. Once a judgment is obtained in a private lender’s favor, that lender can pursue remedies such as wage garnishment.

Many private lenders have deferment or forbearance programs, though borrowers typically need to make a compelling case to be eligible for them. Under both programs, however, interest continues to accrue on outstanding debt during the time in which payments are paused.

As of the end of the first quarter of 2019, 75.37% of private student loans are considered to be in repayment, according to MeasureOne. Of those, however, 1.5% are 90 days or more past due, which generally means they’re in default. Meanwhile, 20.02% of private student loans are in deferment, 2.18% are in forbearance, and 2.44% are in their grace period.

Income-driven repayment plan use

Those who take out federal student loans can apply for an income-driven repayment plan if they're struggling to keep up with their payments. These plans cap monthly payments at a reasonable percentage of borrowers' income -- anywhere from 10–20% -- and forgive remaining balances after 20–25 years.

Currently, there are an estimated 7.37 million federal student loan borrowers on an income-driven repayment plan. These plans come in four varieties, and here's a breakdown of what they entail and how many borrowers are taking advantage of them:

Repayment Plan

Payment Cap

Loan Balance Forgiveness

Current Number of Borrowers on Plan

Pay As You Earn (PAYE)

10% of discretionary income

After 20 years

1.31 million

Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE)

10% of discretionary income

After 20 years (25 years for loans taken out for graduate study)

2.56 million

Income-Based Repayment (IBR)

10% of discretionary income, or 15% if loan was taken out before July 1, 2014

After 20 years (25 years for loans taken out before July 1, 2014)

2.82 million

Income-Contingent Repayment (IBR)

Lesser of 20% of discretionary income or the payment on a 12-year fixed-payment plan

After 25 years


Data source for borrowers on plan: -- Direct Loan Portfolio by Repayment Plan.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Student loan borrowers employed by a government or not-for-profit organization may be eligible to have their debt forgiven under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Those seeking to have their debt erased must meet certain criteria, such as being on an income-driven repayment plan and having made 120 qualifying payments toward their outstanding debt.

As of the third quarter of 2018, 1,173,420 borrowers attempted to certify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Of those, 890,516 had their employment and loans certified as eligible. However, just 19,321 of them submitted forgiveness applications, and a mere 55 officially had their loans forgiven.

Key takeaways: Student loan debt is a continuing problem

Student loan balances are likely to continue climbing as college costs rise or hold steady at already inflated rates. Students who borrow excessively risk falling behind on their payments (keeping in mind that not everyone takes out federal loans, and not everyone is eligible for an income-driven repayment plan). A better bet is to keep debt as low as possible. You might opt for more affordable schools over pricier ones and work while you're earning a degree.

Those with existing student debt should take steps to stay on top of their loans to avoid defaulting, damaging their credit, and suffering other repercussions. Though private loans don’t offer the same built-in protections as federal loans, many private lenders work with borrowers and negotiate repayment terms. Refinancing is also an option for those struggling to keep up with their student loan payments, especially among those with excellent credit.

Student loan debt is a big issue in the United States. And, as of now, it looks like it's going to continue to grow. Do what you can to stay ahead of it.