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Compare Your Student Loan Debt to National Studies—What’s Your Percentile?

When you sign up for student loans you bet on the future. You wager that the commodity you buy—an education—will produce a decent living and also enough income to pay off your debt.

Lately, more people than ever have been betting their futures on education. In 2004, the total amount of student debt in the United States stood at a mere $364 billion. Since then it has tripled to a hefty $1.2 trillion. In 2004, about 27 percent of all 25 year olds held student debt, by the end of 2012 about 43 percent did.

If student debt is or will be part of your life, you should consider how you stack up or will stack up against other borrowers. It’s one thing to know that you’ll owe $65,000 for a veterinary degree. It’s quite another thing to realize that this level of debt places you in the 90th percentile of all student debtors nationwide.

A high student debt ranking should be a flashing red light on your personal finance dashboard—a warning that your path forward should be considered with the greatest care. Before you sign on the dotted line, you should spend at least a few hours evaluating job availability, prospective income levels, the likelihood of thriving in your chosen field, how the debt load might affect major life decisions like marriage, children and home ownership, and whether other enjoyable careers might not force you so deeply into the red.

Note: This article was published in the summer of 2014 and is based upon data from 2012. It has since been updated to reflect the results of newer data from 2014. To see the revised article, click here.

The Consumer Credit Panel (CCP)

The statistics in this post are based on studies by staff members at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRBNY) and the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City (FRBKC). These studies publish percentile figures for student loan indebtedness as derived from the FRBNY’s CCP for the fourth quarter of 2012 (the 2012 CCP).

The 2012 CCP comprises a large random sample of US residents who have credit files with Equifax, a credit reporting company. The initial sample involves approximately 40 million people which represents 5 percent of all US-based credit files. To save on data processing costs, the study of student indebtedness is based upon a statistically significant subset of the 40 million individuals. All within this subset have some level of student loan debt.

For 2012, the CCP reports a median student debt of about $14,000, which means that if you listed the total debts of all the studied debtors in numerical order, as many would fall above the $14,000 mark as below it.

For 2012, the CCP reports a mean student debt of about $25,000, which means that if you added up the total student debt and divided that by the total number of debtors studied, the resulting value would be about $25,000. Since the reported mean is almost twice as high as the reported median, it signals the presence of some big borrowers. In fact, if you look at the data you’ll see that about 4.6 percent of those studied owe $100,000 or more.

Student Loan Balances By Percentile Rank

To see where you rank in percentile student debt figures for the 2012 CCP (as expanded by a process of linear interpolation), simply scroll down the left hand column until you reach the dollar figure that’s nearest to but not over the amount of your total student loan debt. The corresponding number in the right hand column reports your percentile ranking.

If you owe at least x dollars in total student loans, you owe more than y percent of all borrowers
$6,000 25.00
$7,000 28.73
$8,000 32.45
$9,000 36.18
$10,000 39.90
$11,000 42.43
$12,000 44.95
$13,000 47.48
$14,000 50.00
$15,000 51.79
$16,000 53.58
$17,000 55.37
$18,000 57.16
$19,000 58.95
$20,000 60.75
$21,000 62.54
$22,000 64.33
$23,000 66.12
$24,000 67.91
$25,000 69.70
$26,000 70.76
$27,000 71.82
$28,000 72.88
$29,000 73.94
$30,000 75.00
$31,000 75.62
$32,000 76.24
$33,000 76.86
$34,000 77.48
$35,000 78.10
$36,000 78.72
$37,000 79.34
$38,000 79.96
$39,000 80.58
$40,000 81.20
$41,000 81.82
$42,000 82.44
$43,000 83.06
$44,000 83.68
$45,000 84.30
$46,000 84.92
$47,000 85.54
$48,000 86.16
$49,000 86.78
$50,000 87.40
$51,000 87.58
$52,000 87.76
$53,000 87.94
$54,000 88.12
$55,000 88.30
$56,000 88.48
$57,000 88.66
$58,000 88.84
$59,000 89.02
$60,000 89.20
$61,000 89.38
$62,000 89.56
$63,000 89.74
$64,000 89.92
$65,000 90.10
$66,000 90.28
$67,000 90.46
$68,000 90.64
$69,000 90.82
$70,000 91.00
$71,000 91.18
$72,000 91.36
$73,000 91.54
$74,000 91.72
$75,000 91.90
$76,000 92.08
$77,000 92.26
$78,000 92.44
$79,000 92.62
$80,000 92.80
$81,000 92.98
$82,000 93.16
$83,000 93.34
$84,000 93.52
$85,000 93.70
$86,000 93.88
$87,000 94.06
$88,000 94.24
$89,000 94.42
$90,000 94.60
$91,000 94.78
$92,000 94.96
$93,000 95.14
$94,000 95.32
$95,000 95.50
$96,000 95.68
$97,000 95.86
$98,000 96.04
$99,000 96.22
$100,000 96.40
$110,000 96.84
$120,000 97.28
$130,000 97.72
$140,000 98.16
$150,000 98.60
$160,000 98.78
$170,000 98.96
$180,000 99.14
$190,000 99.32
$200,000 99.50

Sources: http://www.newyorkfed.org/research/staff_reports/sr668.pdf, Figure 4 and https://www.kansascityfed.org/publicat/reswkpap/pdf/rwp%2012-05.pdf, Table 2.

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