Office of Planning & Budgeting

January 6, 2015

A Growing Student Loan Crisis? Maybe Not

A new report from the Brookings Institution concludes that student loan borrowers may not be in such a dire situation as media reports commonly suggest.  The report, Is a Student Loan Crisis on the Horizon?, finds that while student debt levels have risen along with college tuition over the past two decades, college graduates’ incomes have kept pace.  The authors analyze data on student borrowers over the period 1989-2010.  They conclude that education debt has not become a greater burden on borrowing households.

  • Education debt increased most among households with higher levels of educational attainment.  Roughly one-quarter of the increase in student debt can be explained by an increase in the number of households with college degrees, especially graduate degrees.  Since 1989, student borrowers with graduate degrees saw their average debt level increase from about $10,000 to about $40,000.  Over the same time, the debt level for borrowers with bachelor’s degrees increased by a smaller margin, from $6,000 to $16,000.
  • On average, student borrowers’ incomes more than kept pace with increases in student debt.  While average household debt increased by about $18,000 between 1992 and 2010, average annual household income for borrowers increased by about $7,400 over that same period.  The average increase in earnings would pay for the increase in debt incurred in just 2.4 years.
  • The ratio of monthly debt payments to monthly income has held steady.  Between 1992 and 2010, the median borrowing household consistently paid between three and four percent of monthly income toward student debt.  The mean monthly payment decreased from 15 percent to 7 percent of income over that period.

Student debt levels have increased over the past two decades.  The authors conclude that this is largely driven by tuition increases over that time.  However, higher levels of student borrowing also partly reflect an investment in higher levels of education.  For the average borrower, that investment pays off in higher incomes.