May 30, 2023

In Brief: The Student Debt ‘Crisis’ Doesn’t Actually Exist

We can and should have conversations about making higher ed more accessible and affordable, but honest dialogue toward that goal is only sabotaged by alarmism.

Given the mainstream media’s coverage of student loans, it’s not surprising that many Americans believe there to be a crisis situation of students being unable to pay off the massive incurment of loan debt. However, the reality on the ground is far from the hyperbolic headlines. As Brad Polumbo, an opinion editor at the Foundation for Economic Education, observes, the media and political hysteria is underserved.

Yes, Americans owed $1.75 trillion in student debt in 2022, according to StudentLoanHero. The typical graduate in the class of 2021 left campus with an average of $29,100 in student debt. All told, 45.3 million Americans hold outstanding student loans. This isn’t chump change, and it’s undeniably a sizable debt burden. Yet is it really a “crisis?”

Americans also owe $1.5 trillion in combined auto-loan debt, with the average balance exceeding $20,000, according to Experian. Don’t forget the $841 billion we owe in credit-card debt, either. Oh, and Americans owe $11.4 trillion in total mortgage debt — more than six times as much as student loans — at a whopping $346,339 average loan, according to BankRate.

In other words, Americans owe a lot of money on various important things like homes and cars — things that most would classify as necessities for living life in a modern world. Polumbo notes:

Yet we never hear about America’s “auto-loan epidemic” or “looming mortgage crisis.” That’s because big numbers alone don’t constitute a crisis. A deeper look at the reality of student debt in America reveals that while it may be a problem, it’s nowhere near “crisis” level.

The real or deeper issue is not the student loan debt. Rather, it’s the spiking cost of higher education.

To be clear, none of this is to say that our current levels of student debt are just fine and dandy. They’re not. Student debt is a real problem for some. And college is absolutely too expensive — absurdly so — yet that’s a topic for another time. But the reality of student debt in America is not a “crisis.”

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