November 23, 2010

The Rise of College Student Borrowing

I. Overview

Undergraduate college student borrowing has risen dramatically in recent years. Graduates who received a bachelor’s degree in 20081 borrowed 50% more (in inflation-adjusted dollars) than their counterparts who graduated in 1996, while graduates who earned an associate’s degree or undergraduate certificate in 2008 borrowed more than twice what their counterparts in 1996 had borrowed, according to a new analysis of National Center for Education Statistics data by the Pew Research Center’s Social & Demographic Trends project.

Increased borrowing by college students has been driven by three trends:

Other key findings from the Pew Research analysis:

About this Report

The total loan amounts in this report are intended to capture the total debt students incurred for their degrees, from enrollment to graduation, so the analysis is limited to students who completed their degrees. It is based on publicly available data published by the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. The National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) collects student-level information based on federal financial aid records, college and university records, and student interviews. It is conducted every four years and is nationally representative of schools that participate in federal financial aid programs. The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) collects institution-level data annually from nearly every institution of higher education that participates in federal financial aid programs. All years in the report are academic years, identified by the later calendar year. For example, 2008 refers to the 2007-2008 academic year. Appendix A describes the data sources and methodology in more detail.

This report was edited by Paul Taylor, executive vice president of the Pew Research Center and director of its Social & Demographic Trends project. The report also benefited from comments by Rakesh Kochhar and Mark Hugo Lopez of the Pew Research Center and Jacqueline King of the American Council on Education. The report was copy-edited by Marcia Kramer of Kramer Editing Services and number-checked by Daniel Dockterman of the Pew Research Center.

  1. All values in this report are measured over academic years rather than calendar years. For example, “2008 graduates” refers to students who graduated at any point in the 2007-2008 academic year.
  2. The U.S. Department of Education did not distinguish between private not-for-profit and for-profit schools in published graduation figures prior to 2003.