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How Student Debt Reduces Lifetime Wealth

At What Cost? How Student Debt Reduces Lifetime Wealth by Robert Hiltonsmith, Demos, August 2013

“Student debt has skyrocketed over the past decade, quadrupling from just $240 billion in 2003 to more than $1 trillion today. If current borrowing patterns continue, student debt levels will reach $2 trillion in 2025. Average debt levels have risen rapidly as well: two-thirds (66 percent) of college seniors now graduate with an average of $26,600 in student loans, up from 41 percent in 1989. The rise of this “debt-for-diploma” system over the past decade was largely caused by the sharp decline in state funding for higher education, which has fallen by 25 percent since its peak in 2000. However, despite the fact that student debt is now nearly a prerequisite for a college degree, we have not yet fully explored the impact of tying opportunity to debt. Though a college education remains the surest path to a middle-class life, evidence has begun to mount that student debt may be far more detrimental to financial futures than once thought, particularly for those with the highest levels of debt: students of color and students from low-income families. This brief attempts to quantify just how much these soaring debt levels impact college-educated households’ financial stability over a lifetime. It creates a model using data from the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances and other datasets to estimate household debt and assets, comparing the projected debts and assets of a college-educated household with average levels of education debt to a similar household without debt. It finds that, over a lifetime of employment and saving, $53,000 in education debt leadsto a wealth loss of nearly $208,000. We can generalize this result to predict that the $1 trillion in outstanding student loan debt will lead to total lifetime wealth loss of $4 trillion for indebted households, not even accounting for the heavy impact of defaults. The model’s prediction of lifetime lost assets due to student debt also understates the impact of education debt on many borrowers in another way. Student debt levels vary widely by both race and family income of graduates; thus, for low-income and minority borrowers, the lifetime cost of student loans will likely be even greater.”


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