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How much student debt is there?

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Written by Elise Nass
Updated: October 24, 2022
9 min read
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Student loan debt is one of the most pressing issues for many students across the country. The average student loan debt, typical student loan payments, and other markers can indicate how severe the loan debt crisis is. Over half of American students leave college with student loan debt. Alternative methods of financial aid such as scholarships become more and more important for struggling students. Understanding the student loan debt crisis can help students budget for the future and explore scholarships as a form of financial aid.

College costs continue to rise over the last few decades, increasing the demand for financial aid programs. Scholarships are a form of free money that does not need to be repaid, unlike a loan. Sign up today to make a free account with and gain access to hundreds of exclusive online scholarships.

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As for how widespread and severe the student loan debt crisis is, total student loan debt in the United States has now reached $1.75 trillion and continues to grow. This number combines both the amount of student loan debt incurred through private loans and federal loans. Federal student loan debt makes up the majority of the loans that are taken out for educational purposes. Of the total student loan debt, $1.61 trillion represents federal student loan debt.

Despite the recent federal student loan forgiveness programs, student loan debt remains an issue that many students of all backgrounds struggle with. Check out the guide on student loan forgiveness for more information about federal student loan forgiveness. Learn more about student loans and the current state of the student loan debt crisis in the United States by reading’s student loan research report.

How many Americans are in student debt?

How many Americans are in student debt?

The student loan debt crisis affects millions of people across the country. Over 43 million Americans continue to be affected by the student loan debt crisis. Both current students and adults in the workforce are affected. Students of all backgrounds, in all different areas of the country, struggle with student loan debt.

The majority of student loan debt comes from federal student loans. 42.9 million student loan borrowers owe federal student loan payments, while nearly 3 million student loan borrowers still have private student loans. Student loan borrowers may have loans from both federal and private lenders.

Fewer than 2% of student loan borrowers who take out private loans will default, partially explaining why federal student loans make up most of the national student loan debt.

Though financial aid programs exist, taking out a loan is still one of the most common ways to secure a large amount of funding for college. 30% of undergraduate students will take out a federal student loan.

Student loan debt can be a problem for both students and their parents. Many parents choose to take out a loan on behalf of their child to fund their education. 96% of borrowers with outstanding student loan debt incurred for their own education continue to hold debt. 88% of parents or grandparents who borrowed for a dependent’s education continued to hold student loan debt.

What is the average student loan debt?

What is the average student loan debt?

As university costs vary drastically from school to school. A more accurate number for the average amount of student loan debt a single student has would depend on the type of university they attend. A typical public university or college student's average student loan debt totals around $32,880 to graduate with a bachelor’s degree. On the other hand, a private, non-profit university student borrows $35,983 on average and a private, for-profit student incurs an average student loan debt of $42,551.

The total student loan debt continues to grow as college costs rise and as a bachelor’s degree becomes increasingly necessary in the workforce. Collective student debt increased by 8.28% in 2020 alone. In the span of one academic school year, 31.8% of undergraduate students applied to take out federal student loans.

How long will it take to pay off student debt?

Having to take out loans to pay for college is stressful enough, but the student loan debt problem doesn’t just affect current students. Even those that have graduated and have been working in the workforce for some time may still be in the process of repaying their student loan debt. 15% of American adults continue to report that they still have outstanding student debt from their undergraduate years in college.

It may take longer for some student loan borrowers to pay off their debt than others, and some are unable to pay back their student loans on time. Tuition costs continue to rise, creating more debt that takes longer to pay back. In addition, student loan debt increases at a faster rate than rising tuition costs.

While there is no rule for how long it takes to pay off student loan debt, half of student borrowers will need over 20 years to repay their debt. Two decades after enrolling in college, 50% of student borrowers still owe $20,000 each in outstanding student loan payments.

In addition, a large percentage of student loan borrowers struggle to make student loan payments on time or default on their loans, making it even harder to pay off their student loan debt quickly. 12.4% of student loan debt repayments are late, as reflected by data collected in March 2020. This amounts to $90.5 million in late student loan debt repayments. 11.8% of delinquent loan debt defaults.

Resources for student loan borrowers

Resources for student loan borrowers

The amount of time it takes to fully repay one’s student debt will depend on your specific financial circumstances and the amount of student debt you incur. Those who are able to secure higher-paying jobs may be able to repay their loans faster. Those who don’t need to rely on loans as much may be able to take out a smaller amount of debt, which can be repaid more quickly.

The school a student chooses to attend will also affect their ability to pay off their student debt. Some colleges may have better financial aid programs than others. Students may qualify for more financial aid at one school than another, depending on the rules for qualification.

Though student loan debt may be the only way for a student to finance their college education, getting behind on student loan payments can create more problems in the future. Your credit score, for example, can be affected by late student loan payments. Students late on their payments may also lose access to other methods and programs for debt relief.

Scholarships can be a good way to supplement federal student loans. Need-based scholarships, which are regularly updated in this list, focus on awarding financial aid to students from low-income brackets or students who need assistance repaying federal student loans.

There are even grant programs to help students pay off any type of student loan debt they may have, including federal loans and private student loans. This page on grants for repaying student loans lists some of the repayment programs available to student loan borrowers.

What percentage of people pay off their student debt?

It takes a significant chunk of time to fully repay one’s student debt. Students may still be making student loan payments after they graduate, well into adulthood. 24% of adults in the United States report that they have completely paid off their student loan debt, whether private or federal.

Though it takes time to make a dent in the debt students accrue during their time in college, 26% of borrowers who took out loans to finance their own education hold a student loan debt balance of below $10,000.

As for how long it may take for a student to fully repay their student debt. 1 in 10 borrowers still holds student loan debt 20 years after taking out the loan.

Whether students attend a private or public institution may also make a difference in their ability to pay off their student loans. As of 2020, 9% of public university student borrowers were behind on their student loan payments. Of students who chose to attend private, for-profit schools, 24% were behind on their student loan payments. Lastly, only 7% of borrowers who enrolled in private, nonprofit universities reported being behind on their student loan payments.

How much debt is normal?

Frequently asked questions about student debt

How much debt is normal?

A ‘normal’ amount of debt will likely vary depending on the cost of the school a student chooses to attend and how much of the tuition cost they can cover themselves. There are several other factors that contribute to how much debt a student will incur during their college education.

The amount of money a parent or guardian contributes to paying tuition fees can dramatically lower the size of the loan a student needs to take out. A student’s ability to work during college can also make them less reliant on private or federal loans.

One of the factors students should keep in mind when applying to college is the financial aid program. Some schools, such as Harvard, pledge to meet 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need. Though not all financial aid programs may make this promise, attending a school with a good financial aid program can drastically decrease the price of attending college. Students with extensive demonstrated financial need may be able to secure a full ride or close to it.

Many students need to take out student loans in order to pay for college, holding debt, in general, is quite normal in the United States. Nearly a third of undergraduate students applied for federal loans in one year. As mentioned, the average student borrows $32,880 to earn a bachelor’s degree at a public university or college.

However, not all students stop at earning a bachelor’s degree. As job requirements increase, many students seek higher education in the form of graduate school. Some students choose to attend graduate school in hopes of securing a higher-paying job. Attending graduate school will immediately increase a student’s tuition costs, and 66% of graduate students borrow federal loans to help pay for their education.

The average student loan debt will vary depending on the financial situation of the student, but in general, it is normal to have some amount of student debt. Typically, the average student loan debt a student may have will fall between $30,000 and $40,000.

Why are student loans hard to pay off?

Student loans are difficult to pay off for a number of reasons. Many Americans who take out student loans are current college or university students, meaning they will not be able to begin repaying their debt until a few years later when they graduate and find employment. Interest, for example, means that the longer a person takes to repay their student loans, the more they will have to pay.

One of the largest student loan servicing companies in the United States, Navient, was discovered to have collected $4 billion exclusively in interest charges in 2017. Borrowers who cannot pay the full amount of their student debt payment may enter a forbearance period, during which time their payments are slightly lowered. However, interest charges persist in the forbearance period despite the drop in the actual cost of the payment.

Though programs like forbearance or even suspension of student debt payments exist, private lenders rarely allow borrowers to defer their interest payments. 11.2% of adults who hold student loan debt report that they are unable to make at least one student loan payment in the year they were surveyed.

In addition, many banks will withhold alternate forms of debt relief like refinancing from borrowers who are late on their student loan payments. Late repayments may also negatively impact a borrower’s credit score, decreasing their ability to take out future loans. Essentially, falling slightly behind on student loan payments or taking too long to repay them will create even more problems.

As a result, one misstep may cause long-term repercussions for student loan borrowers. The more a person struggles with repaying their loan, the harder it will be for them to actually do so.

Students who are interested in finding ways to supplement their student loans, whether private or federal, may be interested in looking at scholarships as a means of financial aid. Scholarships are free gift aid that do not need to be repaid in any way. Sign up for a free account with to access financial aid resources and hundreds of scholarships, all in one place.

Elise Nass
Content Writer

About Elise

Elise is a skilled and knowledgeable writer. Her understanding of scholarships and internships enables her to craft insightful and informative content that resonates with students, helping them navigate the often complex processes of applying for financial aid and career opportunities.

Elise graduated from New York University with a double major in English and Psychology, as well as a minor in Creative Writing.


Through challenging university coursework and corporate experience, Elise has become an expert in several different types of writing, including literary analysis, content pieces, formal scientific writing, SEO editing, and more. Elise expanded on her knowledge while interning in marketing, using her understanding of SEO to boost website traffic and customer engagement.

She’s published a short story in The Foundationalist literary magazine and has also won several short story writing awards at the regional and international levels. Elise loves to craft content that helps students navigate college life and scholarship applications. She makes use of syntax and tone to write readable, engaging pieces. Elise has a solid understanding of linguistics and grammatical structures across multiple languages thanks to her fluency in English and proficiency in Mandarin and Cantonese. 

Elise first joined in 2022 during her undergraduate studies, explored other pursuits in 2023, and happily returned in 2024 as a Content Writer. Motivated by her writing skills, she aims to make educational resources more accessible for students of all backgrounds. Additionally, she believes it's important to add to the available information on student loans and student finances in a way that's user-friendly and easy to understand.

Quote from Elise

“I try to create content that would have helped my younger self— stuff I wish I knew when I was starting college.”

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