Average Student Debt Rises From $12,434 in 1992-93 to $26,885 in 2011-12

Michael Morris | October 7, 2014 | 5:33pm EDT
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In 2012, 69 percent, a record share of the nation’s newest college graduates, had taken out student loans to finance their college education, and each student, on average, borrowed more than twice that of college graduates just 20 years ago.

According to the Pew Research Center, “analysis of recently released government data finds that the increase in the rate of borrowing over the past two decades has been much greater among graduates from more affluent families than among those from low-income families.” Fully half of the 2012 high-income family graduates borrowed money to finance their studies. That’s double the share that borrowed in 1992-93.

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Upper-middle-income graduates had a substantial increase in the rate of borrowing over this same period, with 62 percent of the 2012 graduates from upper-middle-income families leaving their respective colleges with debt, compared with the 1992-93 graduates at a meager 34 percent.

Graduating students from low-income families continue to be more likely to graduate with student loan debt, with 77 percent graduating with debt in 2012. Low-income graduates, however, only had a modest increase in borrowing from 67 percent to 77 percent, whereas graduates from the highest income homes saw a faster rate of increase in borrowing, at a rate of 50 percent, up from just 24 percent 20 years before.

That is more than a 50 percent increase in student loan debt for the highest income graduates.

What, then, has caused such a drastic increase in student loan debt? The Pew Research Center suggests the following in answering this question:

What has changed over the course of roughly two decades then is the pervasiveness of student borrowing across income groups: In the early ’90s, only among graduates from low-income families did a majority of graduates finish college with student debt. Now, solid majorities of graduates from middle-income families (both lower-middle and upper-middle) finish with debt, and half of students from the most affluent quartile of families do the same.

Those student graduates with more highly educated parents have also been unable to avoid a sharper increase in the amount of borrowing. Of students whose parents had also graduated from college, 61 percent left school with some student debt. This is a 50 percent increase compared with student graduates of comparable backgrounds just 20 years earlier.

Oddly, the increase in borrowing among students with less educated parents was significantly smaller, though this group of students remains more likely to borrow than the others do.

On a scarier note, “the typical amount of cumulative student debt” for undergraduate students who borrowed money for school increased from $12,434 in 1992-93 to $26,885 in 2011-12 (figures adjusted for inflation). The typical amount owed by each student at graduation increased about twofold over this time period.

Along with shifts along socioeconomic lines, rates of borrowing have also shifted by gender. 2012 females, who borrowed money for education (71 percent), are more likely to borrow than males (67 percent), and females now owe more of the total student debt than their male counterparts in the class of 1993. 1993 female graduates (49 percent) were about equally as likely to borrow as male graduates (50 percent). Both females and males owed nearly twofold at graduation between the class of 1993 and 2012.

The looming national debt, along with the student debt crisis, have raised great concerns, ushering forth the oft discussed issues of declining student creditworthiness and student loan forgiveness, but what, then, shall be done?

Certainly, the implications of policy decisions regarding these important issues should be among the many discussed in the near future.

The Pew Research Center noted the following about this report:

This report focuses on the family income background of recent college graduates who took on student debt and how the financial profile of borrowers has changed over the past 20 years. Many recent analyses have examined why undergraduates are borrowing more for their education. This analysis seeks to illuminate which undergraduates are increasingly borrowing to finance their completion of a bachelor’s degree. Understanding the changing income background of student borrowers is useful for illuminating why college graduates may be having greater difficulty in meeting their debt obligations as well as understanding who might benefit from proposals to shift the repayment of loans from the student to the government.

Find related reports online at

This report is a collaborative effort based on the input and analysis of the following individuals. Claudia Deane, the center’s director of research practices, and Kim Parker, director of social trends research, provided editorial oversight. Richard Fry, senior economist, wrote the report and analyzed the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. Eileen Patten, research analyst, finalized the charts and tables and number-checked the report. Molly Rohal, communications associate, copy edited the text.

A “college graduate” is defined by the Pew Research Center as “an undergraduate who received a bachelor’s degree in the year that the data source (National Postsecondary Student Aid Study) was collected. Student debt refers to the cumulative amount borrowed by graduates during their undergraduate education. It includes federal loans as well as private loans. It excludes loans taken out by parents or guardians (for example, PLUS loans).”

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