How Student Loan Debt Has Increased Over Time

Quick Answer

To illustrate how student loan debt has grown compared with other forms of debt, Experian analyzed data collected from student loan holders nationwide as well as government data dating back to 2009.

A group of four college students look at a textbook on the table together.

Some of the most common types of debt―a mortgage, an auto loan and a credit card balance―are often necessary forms of debt people take on for everyday life, from covering household purchases and building good credit to attaining the American Dream of homeownership.

In the U.S., pursuing higher education has also often meant taking on debt. Since the Great Recession, rising tuition at U.S. universities has contributed to student loans growning at rates unseen with other forms of personal debt. As of June 2022, the average student loan debt among consumers in the U.S. totaled $39,381, according to Experian. In 2012, U.S. consumers' overall student loan debt surpassed the $1 trillion mark for the first time, and it's continued its climb since.

To better understand how student loan debt has grown over time, Experian compiled data on student loan debt and government data dating back to 2009. The average loan balance used in the analysis represents the average debt among all student loan borrowers.

Historical data shows how average student loan debt balances have increased faster than inflation. In fact, student debt has also grown to equal more than credit card and auto loan balances combined.

Average Student Loan Balance

Student Loan Debt Has the Highest Average Consumer Balance After Mortgages

The average student loan debt balance has grown by nearly 92% since 2009, according to Experian data. Student loan debt averages saw the biggest year-over-year increase from summer 2012 to summer 2013, when they jumped nearly 10%. For Americans who have student loan debt, the average balance is nearly $40,000—second only to home mortgages when it comes to consumers' average debt balance.

Average Consumer Debt Balance by Type
Student loans$39,366
Auto loans$20,545
Credit cards$5,148

Data source: Experian data from Q2 2021

Student Loan Debt Growth Is Outpacing Inflation

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the annual nationwide inflation rate in the U.S. hovered around 2%—and often fell below 2%—over the decade leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, the first full pandemic-era calendar year, the inflation rate spiked to 7%.

Since the summer of 2012, the average student loan balance has grown much more rapidly. Over the three-year period preceding 2012, the average student loan balance grew by just under $2,000. Since 2012, student debt rose steadily at a much faster rate than income.

Student Loan Debt Is Outpacing Income

The median household income in the U.S. fell in the years following the financial crisis of 2008, and then saw modest year-over-year growth through 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Comparatively, the average student loan debt balance has increased at more than twice the rate of the median household income since 2009. By 2020, the median household income had grown from $49,777 to $67,521, or about 36%, not adjusting for inflation. Between 2009 and June 2022, the average student loan balance held by U.S. consumers grew about 92%, from $20,560 to $39,381.

Change in Student Debt Balance vs. Income Since 2009

Growing College Costs Adding to Financial Strain

For at least a decade, college tuition has become increasingly expensive, according to data from BLS and the U.S. Department of Education.

The rate at which the average student loan debt balance in the U.S. has increased actually slowed from 2020 to 2021, according to Experian data. This is largely due to a nationwide drop in college enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic, which reduced the number of people who took out new loans.

The CARES Act, passed in March 2020, also affected loan balances when it set an emergency relief interest rate for federal student loans at 0%. The law also allows employers to make up to $5,250 in tax-free annual payments toward their employees' student loans, which could have had an effect.

On August 24, 2022, the Biden administration announced a student debt relief plan to cancel $10,000 in student loan debt for individuals making less than $125,000 a year and married couples and those who file taxes as head of household making less than $250,000. Pell Grant recipients may be eligible to receive $20,000 in loan forgiveness. For all borrowers, the pause on federal loan repayment has been extended for more than two years now, with payments set to resume sometime in 2023.

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