What Student Loan Debt Looks Like in America

As of 2022, the average student will likely accrue more than $30,000 in student loan debt. According to the National Center For Education Statistics, 66.6% of the population will be affected by student loan debt. As a result, a majority of students and graduates are affected by loan debt in some way or another. 

One important factor to consider while talking about loan debt is that not all Americans have the same need for student loans. Women and people of color, especially African Americans, are far more likely to require student loans. It isn’t uncommon for many people of color to have their loan debt doubled four years after graduating. Scientists, economists, and sociologists agree that racial and ethnic variations in student loan debt and repayment result from socioeconomic factors rather than physical or inborn characteristics.

In the past older generations were not made to be as reliant on student loans, but it is not an absence of money that has created the need for students to resort to loans. The increased cost of college, coupled with a decrease in college return on investment, prevents students from finding jobs to pay off debt. According to the Education Data Initiative, “The student loan debt growth rate outpaces the rise in tuition costs by 353.8%.” This increased cost of school has done little but minimize the chance of attaining financial freedom and exacerbate racial inequality, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. As a result, students and graduates who have had to take on large amounts of student loan debt may find themselves having a hard time buying a house or car. 

Attaining life goals has become increasingly difficult for those in debt. For example, about 34% of borrowers say they put off having children due to student loans. 28% have even delayed getting married, with the marriage rate at its lowest point since 1900. About 36% of borrowers reported that they put off having a social life due to working more to pay off student loan debt. 44% of borrowers even take undesirable jobs or jobs outside of their field due to the cost of education.

What Are My Options?

Student loans can be a highly stressful aspect of the college experience, from broad cancellations to targeted debt relief. In a 2018 report by the National Center for Education Statistics, only 8% of respondents report having very low stress about their student loans. 17% reported having low stress, 35% having moderate stress, 20% high, and 22% very high stress. Student loan relief is a hot-button issue that is increasingly on the minds of politicians. It isn’t a secret that many borrowers find it hard to keep up with beneficial loan forgiveness programs. A 2021 “Inside Higher Ed” article stated that for 25 years, “…only 32 borrowers have ever qualified for full forgiveness from the federal income-driven loan repayment program…” alternatively known as Income-Driven Repayment Forgiveness (IDRF).

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation, unclear criteria, and bureaucratic processes to forgiveness programs that are not made clear to borrowers. The Inside Higher Ed article states, “if the program worked as intended, more than 2 million borrowers would have had their debt canceled by now.”

Income-Driven Repayment Forgiveness (IDRF): Under the IDRF program, borrowers can have their entire loan balance forgiven after making payments on an income-driven repayment plan for a particular amount of time. This time is based on the specific plan they are paying under:


  • REPAYE Plan – Generally 10 percent of your discretionary income. Under REPAYE, your loans will be forgiven after 20 years if used for undergraduate studies and 25 years if used for graduate or professional studies.
  • PAYE Plan – Generally 10 percent of your discretionary income, but never more than what your payment would be under a 10-year standard repayment plan. Loans under a PAYE plan will be forgiven after 20 years.
  • IBR Plan – For new borrowers after July 1, 2014, 10 percent of your discretionary income, but 15 percent for those borrowers who took out loans before July 1, 2014. In both cases, payments will not be more than what your payment would be under a 10-year standard repayment plan. New borrowers after July 1, 2014, will see forgiveness after 20 years, but borrowers before July 1, 2014, will be eligible after 25 years.
  • ICR Plan – Whichever is less: 20 percent of your discretionary income or what you would pay on a repayment plan with a fixed payment over 12 years, adjusted according to your income. Under an ICR plan, borrowers can see forgiveness after 25 years.


However, these income-based payments must be made on Direct Loans, meaning any other loan type, such as Federal Perkins or Federal Family Education Loans (FFEL), must be consolidated into a Direct Loan. If a borrower fails to do so, they may only learn years later that they will not be eligible for forgiveness.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF): Another program that will forgive an entire loan balance, PSLF is for borrowers who work full-time (30+ hours) in a public service position or for a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization. Like IDRF, payments must be on Direct Loans under an income-driven repayment plan. However, borrowers can be eligible for forgiveness sooner through PSLF. After 120 qualifying payments, a borrower can apply for forgiveness. Those who have made payments under the wrong repayment plan or loans other than Direct loans have until Oct 31, 2022, to take action and have those payments count towards the 120. After the deadline, payments made on another payment plan will not count toward the 120, and if you have to consolidate your loans into a new Direct loan, your payments will start at 0.


While student loans and the rising cost of education are topics of constant heated debate, it is important to know how they affect borrowers’ lives, how it has affected their choices, and what options are available to them. Student loans should not put life on hold, and by learning your options and taking action, they do not have to.


Hanson, M. (2022, May 9). Student Loan Debt Statistics. Retrieved from Education Data Initiative: https://educationdata.org/student-loan-debt-statistics 


Lane , R., & Helhoski, A. (2022, April 22). Student Loan Debt Statistics: 2022. Retrieved from NerdWallet: https://www.nerdwallet.com/article/loans/student-loans/student-loan-debt#who-has-student-loan-debt 


Murakami, K. (2021, March 9). Only 32 Borrowers Have Ever Qualified for Income-Driven Repayment. Retrieved from Inside Higher Ed: https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2021/03/09/only-32-borrowers-have-ever-qualified-income-driven-repayment 


National Center for Education Statistics. (2020, July 27). Student Debt: Fast Facts. Retrieved from National Center for Education Statistics: 



Siripurapu, A., & Speier, M. (2021, April 13). Is Rising Student Debt Harming the U.S. Economy? Retrieved from Council on Foreign Relations: https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/rising-student-debt-harming-us-economy?gclid=Cj0KCQjwyYKUBhDJARIsAMj9lkHWK3PdWidiw9zNdghvMA4i7uhg51ihRf5J8iUdegTNlXOj01WcWs4aApomEALw_wcB 


Curtin, S ., & Sutton, P. (2020, April 29) Marriage Rates in the United States, 1900–2018:



Hanson, M. (2021, July 10) “Student Loan Debt by Race”



Web tables—debt after college: Employment, enrollment, and. (n.d.). Retrieved October 28, 

2021, from https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2018/2018401.pdf.