National student loan debt has reached over $1.3 trillion, with more than 40 million borrowers across the United States. I count myself among that group, having borrowed approximately $28,000 for my bachelor’s degree and another $30,000 for my master’s degree. For me, as for many others, graduating from college with debt was as much a part of the college experience as class registration and pulling all-nighters in the library.
To try to understand how students feel about borrowing for their college education and how they plan to deal with debt, New America’s Education Policy Program commissioned a survey of prospective and recently enrolled college students ages 16 to 40. We analyzed students’ responses to questions about student loan debt and compared these responses to broader national trends. We discovered that borrowing “reasonably” for college, as defined by students themselves, is not a reality for most and that students are unclear on how loan repayment is structured.
Although the majority of prospective and recently enrolled students (87 percent) indicated that borrowing some amount of money is reasonable for their college education, their idea of how much they should borrow varied widely. Of those who thought borrowing was a reasonable expectation, 55 percent said they should keep the total amount borrowed to $10,000 – the median debt that students deemed reasonable over four years of college – or less.
When students intending to borrow were asked how much debt they expected to borrow, however, the median amount jumped to over $15,000 over four years. Some outlying students estimated they would borrow much more, pulling the average expected loan debt much higher to $25,295. In other words, most students accept a certain amount of debt as reasonable, but many expect that they themselves will have to borrow more than that.
Those worrisome expectations students have about how much they’ll have to borrow carry over into their concerns about being able to repay their loans. More than half (55 percent) of prospective and recently enrolled college students who plan on borrowing voiced anxiety that they would have difficulty repaying their loans. That finding is perhaps less surprising when we look at how much students think their monthly payments will be under the standard repayment plan – a 10-year plan that students who borrow federal loans are automatically enrolled in upon leaving school. The prospective and recently enrolled students in our survey estimated their average monthly payment would be $545 per month, more than twice the national average.
And this was an overestimation. According to an analysis of student loan debt by the Brookings Institution, the current average student loan payment is $242 per month. Using the repayment estimator that the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office provides, we found that the monthly payment for the average estimated debt of our prospective and recently-enrolled students ($25,295) at current interest rates would be $260 – not their estimated $545 – on the standard repayment plan.
A gap in understanding
It’s clear from the numbers that these students struggle to understand exactly how much money they should borrow and how their payment will be structured. If it’s less clear how these findings can be translated into substantive policy changes, consider this. Under the current system of processing financial aid, financial aid packages fluctuate from year to year, meaning that students have little or no opportunity to understand their financial landscape in cumulative terms over the course of a four-year degree.
Practical solutions could address some of these problems. For example, if we could move to a system that uses an average of several years of income to produce an aid package that is valid over the course of an entire degree program, students would be better able to understand their total loan amounts and set plans in motion earlier for how to deal with repayment. In addition, all students currently have to undergo entrance counseling to get federal student loans. This counseling could be enhanced by providing detailed information – their cumulative balance, interest rates, and estimated monthly payments – to students each time they take out new loans.
And the structure of repayment plans could be simplified to include no more than three options, instead of the more than seven that are currently offered. These options could include the 10-year standard, an income-based repayment plan where borrowers’ payments are linked to their incomes until the debt is repaid, and a consolidation option that reduces the monthly payment and extends it over more years than under the standard plan.
As more and more students borrow for their college education, they will need to keep their debt in perspective and ensure that they are only borrowing what they find to be reasonable amounts they can afford to pay back. But it will also be essential to remember that supporting students in this process isn’t just about borrowing and debt.
The effort to help students must be two-fold: we must do a better job at helping students understand their debt, but it will also be important to focus on how to make a college education more affordable so that students can keep borrowing to a minimum in the first place. That, too, should be as much a part of the conversation on college as our $1.3 trillion dollar student loan problem and the plight of student borrowers.
Data for this article is from the College Decisions Survey.