Average Student Loan Debt by Year

Report Highlights. Currently, student loan debt at graduation is an estimated $31,100. Despite the rising cost of tuition, graduates who have been out of school for years often owe more than new graduates due to interest rates.

  • The average total student loan debt-to-income ratio (DTI) for a new graduate is 54.6%.
  • The average monthly student loan payment for the Class of 2021 is an estimated $391.
  • After adjusting for inflation, the Class of 2007 graduated with the highest amount of debt, with an average balance of $36,765 in May 2021 dollars.
  • Before adjusting for inflation, the average student loan debt at graduation has increased 2,807% since 1970; after adjusting for inflation, the average debt increased 317%.
  • The current average federal student loan debt balance $37,113; including private student loan debt, the average balance is as high as $40,339.

Related reports include Student Loan Debt Statistics | Averate Student Loan Debt | Average Time to Repay Student Loans | Average Cost of College | How Do People Pay for College? | Student Loan Refinancing

Student Loan Debt (per Student) at Graduation by Year
Graduation Year Debt at Graduation
per Student
Debt at Graduation in May 2021 Dollars
2021 $31,100* $31,100
2020 $30,000 $31,500
2019 $29,500 $30,975
2018 $29,200 $31,244
2017 $28,650 $31,515
2016 $28,525 $31,948
2015 $28,400 $32,092
2014 $28,650 $32,375
2013 $28,900 $33,524
2012 $29,400 $34,398
2011 $25,300 $30,107
2010 $24,200 $29,766
2009 $23,000 $28,980
2008 $23,300 $28,892
2007 $28,500 $36,765
2006 $26,900 $35,777
2005 $20,000 $27,600
2004 $18,650 $26,483
2003 $16,070 $23,623
2002 $18,870 $28,305
2001 $16,900 $25,519
2000 $17,350 $27,240
1999 $15,510 $25,126
1998 $14,590 $24,074
1997 $13,670 $22,966
1996 $12,750 $21,930
1995 $12,600 $22,302
1990 $6,760 $14,061
1985 $5,200 $13,052
1980 $3,900 $12,831
1975 $1,000 $5,060
1970 $1,070 $7,458

*Unconfirmed.

Student Loan Debt at Graduation

Among graduates with Bachelor’s degrees, debt may range from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars. The average public university graduate typically owes much less than the average graduate of a private, for-profit institution.

  • $30,000 is the mean average student loan debt for the past decade.
  • $33,600 is the mean average student loan debt for the past decade when adjusted for inflation.
  • A typical low-end starting salary for bachelor’s degree holders is between $24,500 and $37,500.
  • Debt at graduation does not necessarily equal the amount borrowed, since many loans begin accruing interest before entering repayment.
  • Even when adjusted for inflation, the average debt at graduation has risen significantly over recent decades.
  • When adjusted for inflation, 2012 was the peak year for student debt at graduation.

When estimating current debt by graduation year, you may use our report on Average Student Debt by Age as a rough guide. A significant portion of students, however, do not graduate at the traditional age of 22.

Average Debt-to-Income by Graduation Year

Another method to determine current debt by graduation year is to compare the average debt at graduation with the average starting salary for graduates in that year. Note that the borrower’s salary is presumably lower than at the start of repayment than it would be 10 years into repayment, and interest rates change over time.

  • The Class of 2012 had the highest DTI at 66.4%.
  • A 2012 graduate with an average starting income and paying 10% of that income monthly ($369.00) would take 8 years, 5 months, and 26 days to repay their debt assuming an interest rate or APR of 6.0%.
  • To pay off their loan in 10 years, a 2012 graduate would have to put 8.8% of their monthly income toward debt repayment.
  • The average borrower in the Class of 2021 should be able to pay off their federal loans in 10 years with average monthly payments of $307.54 (assuming a 3.5% APR).
  • With average monthly payments of $391.00 or 8.2% of the average starting salary for new bachelor’s degree holders, the average Class of 2021 borrower should be able to pay off their loan in 7 years, 6 months, and 19 days (assuming a 3.5% APR).
  • The average Class of 2021 borrower, making monthly payments of $474.00 or 10% of the average starting salary, should be able to pay off their federal loans in 6 years and 28 days.
  • Among Class of 2021 borrowers with a low-end salary, paying 10% of their monthly income, it would take 16 years, 9 months, and 22 days to repay the average student loan debt.
  • In order to pay off the average loan debt in 10 years, a low-end earner would have to make monthly payments of $307.54 or 15.1% of their starting salary.
Debt-to-Income Ratio Among Bachelor’s Degree Earners at Graduation
Graduation Year Average Starting Salary DTI Among New Grads
2021 $56,918* 54.6%*
2020 $55,260 54.3%
2019 $53,889 54.7%
2018 $50,944 57.3%
2017 $50,516 56.7%
2016 $50,359 56.6%
2015 $50,219 56.6%
2014 $48,127 59.5%
2013 $45,327 63.8%
2012 $44,259 66.4%
2011 $51,171 49.4%
2010 $48,288 50.1%
2009 $48,633 47.3%
2008 $49,224 47.3%
2007 $45,725 62.3%
2006 $43,321 62.1%
2005 $42,081 47.5%
2004 $39,960 46.7%
2003 $39,296 40.9%
2002 $40,162 47.0%
2001 $42,557 39.7%
2000 $39,824 43.6%
1999 $35,595 43.6%
1998 $34,471 42.3%
1997 $32,047 42.7%
1996 $30,728 41.5%
1995 $29,276 43.0%
1990 $27,256 24.8%
1985 $24,289 21.4%
1980 $18,553 16.1%
1975 $12,095 8.3%
1970 $9,951 10.8%

*Unconfirmed.

Line Graph: Average Federal Student Loan Debt-to-Income Ratio, incoem based on average income among all bachelor's degree holders, from 2007 (30.7%), 2008 (37.9%), 2009 (34.7%), 2010 (36.5%), 2011 (37.6%), 2012 (39.6%), 2013 (42.3%), 2014 (42.7%), 2015 (42.8%), 2016 (43.7%), 2017 (45.5%), 2018 (44.9%), 2019 (49.5%), and 2020 (53.8%)

Overall Average Debt-to-Income by Year

The average total DTI among bachelor’s degree holders increases most years. Note that unlike starting salaries, these data are from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (as opposed to the National Association of Colleges and Employers).

  • The average DTI among bachelor’s degree holders increased 75.2% between 2007 and 2020.
  • Also between 2007 and 2020, the average income among bachelor’s degree holders increased 14.1%.
  • Average student debt increases 433.3% or more than five (5) times faster than average income.
  • Most student loan refinance lenders will not accept applicants with a monthly total DTI higher than 40-50%.
  • Income-based or pay-as-you-earn repayment plans are based on 10% to 20% of the borrower’s income.
  • The same federal guidelines recommend a maximum of 36% of one’s income reserved for debts, though this is a much higher rate than any payment plan requires.
  • Starting salaries are generally much lower than the overall average, generally between $24,500 and $37,500.
Student Loan Debt vs. Income By Year
Year Average Federal Debt Average Income
for All Bachelor’s Degree Holders
2020 $36,510 $67,860
2019 $35,205 $71,084
2018 $33,205 $74,001
2017 $32,081 $70,474
2016 $30,548 $69,968
2015 $29,144 $68,101
2014 $27,759 $64,965
2013 $26,268 $62,047
2012 $24,757 $62,565
2011 $23,238 $61,792
2010 $21,860 $59,924
2009 $20,467 $58,932
2008 $19,298 $60,958
2007 $18,233 $59,468

Line Graph of Average Student Loan Debt by Year Adjusted for Inflation

Average Student Loan Debt by Year

There is little data regarding average private student loan debt, but data about federal debt is available for certain time periods.

  • The average federal debt per student borrower is $37,113.
  • Including private student loan debt, the highest possible average debt balance is $40,339.
  • A typical starting salary for bachelor’s degree holders is between $37,500 and $52,000.
  • Ideally, indebted borrowers would make payments based on 10% of their annual income [according to the Office of Federal Student Aid (OFSA) U.S. Department of Education (ED)].
  • It takes the average student borrower up to 20 years to pay off their loans.
Federal Student Loan Debt Per Indebted Borrower
Year Percentage of Enrolled
Students Who Borrowed
Average Debt
Per Borrower
2021 83% $37,113
2020 83% $36,510
2019 83% $35,205
2018 83% $33,548
2017 83% $32,087
2016 83% $30,548
2015 84% $29,144
2014 83% $27,759
2013 83% $26,268
2012 82% $24,757
2011 82% $23,238
2010 81% $21,860
2009 78% $20,467
2008 76% $19,298
2007 73% $18,233

Historical Average Federal Student Loan Debt

Total Student Loan Debt by Year

The national student loan balance, including federal and private debt, has risen steadily over the past 50 years and is currently approaching $1.8 trillion.

  • The national student debt surpassed $1 trillion in 2012.
  • The growing total reflects growth in the average debt per borrower as well as the borrowing rate among the nationwide student population.
  • Since 2006, the national total student loan debt balance has grown 264.0%; after adjusting for inflation, the debt balance has grown 158.2%.
  • The total student loan debt has grown at an annual rate of 17.6%; meanwhile, the cost of college has increased at an annual rate of 14.9%, and the value of the US dollar has grown at a rate of 2.73%.
  • The total national student loan debt balance has outgrown the value of the US dollar 543.9%.
  • The enrolled student population has increased by 4.7%.

Analysis: Student Loans May Fuel the Cycle of Poverty

The average 1996 college graduate left school with $12,750 ($21,030 in May 2021 dollars) in student loan debt. Just over ten years later, 1996 graduates with debt remaining owed an average of $16,500, with a median debt of $17,200.

Theoretically, the average debt per borrower in a single graduating class should diminish with each passing year. In 10 years, however, 1996 graduates who were still in debt had an average balance 1.28% lower than it had been the previous decade.

Further, a median balance of $17,200 indicates that the largest outstanding balances among 1996 graduates must not total much more than $34,400 – or 6.78% less than the average 2021 graduate’s estimated student loan debt.

Finally, the consistency of the average outstanding balance indicates that, over the long term, 1996 graduates are often able to make payments that go toward interest but not toward the loan’s principal. In other words, their debt rarely shrinks despite years in repayment.

All of this indicates a long-term struggle among borrowers to make payments toward their loan’s principal. In the long run, this means they pay more for their loans. Thus, student loan borrowers who lack finances to pay off their loans remain in debt.

Sources

  1. George Washington University Graduate School of Education and Human Development, The Evolution of Student Debt in the U.S.: An Overview
  2. Utne, Student Debt, By the Numbers
  3. Discover, The Rising Cost of College Infographic
  4. National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), Fast Facts: Back to School Statistics
  5. Timeline: The History of Federal Student Loan Interest Rates
  6. Student Loan Interest Rates, Historical Rates
  7. NCES, Graduation Rates for Selected Cohorts, 2008–13; Outcome Measures for Cohort Year 2008;
  8. NCES, Digest of Education Statistics
  9. CNBC, College Graduates Owe $29,000 in Student Debt Now – More Than Ever Before
  10. U.S. Federal Reserve, A Few Thoughts on the Recent Deceleration of Student Loan Debt, Accessible Data
  11. CNBC, College Grads Expect to Earn $60,000 in Their First Job – Here’s How Much They Actually Make
  12. Northeastern University, Average Salary by Education Level: The Value of a College Degree
  13. NCES, The Condition of Education 2020
  14. Profile of Undergraduates in U.S. Postsecondary Education Institutions
  15. ZipRecruiter, Bachelor’s Degree Annual Salary
  16. National Association of Colleges and Employers, Salary Trends Through Salary Survey: A Historical Perspecitive on Starting Salaries for New College Graduates