the distribution of student loan debt

Sometimes it’s hard to find basic descriptive statistics. Even when data exist that could provide the relevant descriptives, it still takes work to analyze them. Social scientists don’t have much incentive to produce high quality descriptive statistics, except as incidental by-products of our typical, more complicated statistical analyses (usually aimed at teasing out causation or explanations). And yet, sometimes, all you (or, in this case, a friend) wants to know is, something seemingly straightforward like: What’s the relationship between income and having student loan debt? How much do people owe in student loans given their incomes?

I took this question to twitter and got some helpful responses in terms of pointers to complicated data sets where the answer could be found, but no existing figures. Raph Charron-Chénier very graciously offered to produce a pair of graphs based on analysis of the Survey of Consumer Finances. The first looks at the percentage of individuals with any student loans by income quintile, and separately by age.

Screen Shot 2019-04-25 at 7.06.07 AM.png

The second looks at the median student loan debt of those in each income quintile who have loans (and the same by age).

Screen Shot 2019-04-25 at 7.06.19 AM.png

These seem like good numbers to have in mind as we think about the proposed effects of Elizabeth Warren’s student loan forgiveness plan. They are not the only things to keep in mind – as Beth Berman argues, free college plans are connected to a broader push from progressives to make the case for universal programs more broadly, including health care. And the trajectories of incomes and loans across the life course are not clear from a point-in-time graph. But, for me, it was very helpful to see that student loan debt is surprisingly evenly spread across the income spectrum.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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