The median American has no federal student loan debt

Less than half of Americans have student loan debt, which means the median debt is $0. But the average student loan debt for Americans is just under $5,000.

President Joe Biden announced on April 6, his administration would extend the pause on federal student loan repayments through August 31, 2022. This is the sixth extension of the pause since it began in March 2020.

Several Democratic lawmakers have called on Biden to go further and cancel student debt instead of extending the break. In turn, other politicians and public figures opposed the cancellation of student debt. Writer Matthew Yglesias, in his argument against canceling student debt, claims that the median American has $0 in student loan debt.

Yglesias uses a term that many haven’t heard since high school – the median is the exact midpoint of a set of numbers. So if you put all Americans in an ordered line from least student debt to greatest student debt, Yglesias claims that the person in the middle of that line would have $0 in student loan debt.

THE QUESTION

Does the median American have $0 in federal student loan debt?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

Yes, the median American has $0 in federal student loan debt because less than half of all Americans have student loans. But that does not take into account the huge debt of 43 million Americans.

WHAT WE FOUND

If you lined up all Americans from those who owe nothing in federal student loans to those who owe the most, the person in the exact middle would indeed owe $0 in student loans. That’s because there are 43 million Americans who have federal student loan debt, according to data from the Federal Student Loan Portfolio, compared to the total population of 331 million people, according to the US Census.

But a median number is not the same as the mean. The average is total debt divided by total population, and is a much more commonly used calculation.

If you were to calculate the average federal student debt for all Americans, you would get $4,853.96. You get this by taking total student debt – $1.611 trillion – and dividing the total US population – 331,893,745 in the Census Bureau’s latest population estimate.

This data is strictly for federal student loan debt, which excludes private student loans. The Education Data Initiative says $1.611 trillion of the nation’s $1.749 trillion in student debt is federal debt. The rest is private debt. There is no federal data on the number of Americans with private student loan debt, but no federal student debt.

According to the Education Data Initiative, 65% of college students in 2021 graduated with student debt. The Institute for College Access & Success said that in 2019, 62% of college seniors graduated with student debt.

And many Americans went to college but didn’t graduate. While more than half of American adults age 25 or older have attended at least one college, less than half stay in college for more than two years. The census indicates that 48.4% of the population aged 25 and over has at least a two-year degree, and 37.9% of the population aged 25 and over has at least a four-year degree.

Pew Research found that in 2016, the median borrower with unpaid student debt for their own education owed $17,000. Among borrowers with less than a bachelor’s degree — students who went to community college, trade school, or dropped out of school before graduation — self-reported median debt was about $10,000. For borrowers with a bachelor’s degree, the median was $25,000. For borrowers with a postgraduate degree, the median self-reported student loan debt was $40,000.

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