DATA

How Much Student-Loan Debt Is Too Much?

September 3, 2014

The Chronicle asked students, recent graduates, parents, and experts a simple question: What is the most you should borrow for a bachelor's degree?

$2,000
$2,000
 
STUDENT“You shouldn't exceed any Pell Grants, really. Normally Pell Grants really cover everything.”Valda M. Garcia-Barbon, junior at Broward College
$4,000
$4,000
 
CONTEXTAverage amount spent on an engagement ring, 2012New York Times
$10,000
 
$20,000
$20,000
 
EXPERT“I don't think you should be paying back college loans for more than 10 years, and it shouldn't be more than 10 percent of your income, I would hope.”Brad MacGowan, college and career counselor, Newton North High School
 
STUDENT“I'm already expecting to have a lower salary after all of graduate school, so I have to keep that in mind.”Adria Brown, rising senior, Dartmouth College
 
EXPERT“One-fifth of a family’s current take-home income—for the whole degree.”Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of educational policy studies & sociology, U. of Wisconsin at Madison
 
$29,400
$29,400
 
CONTEXTAverage student-loan debt of 2012 graduate of a four-year college who borrowedChronicle reporting
$30,000
$30,000
 
GRADUATE“Really put forth a genuine effort to pursue as many scholarships as you possibly can. If you must borrow, try not to borrow more than two full years' worth of tuition.”Jalen Garrett, 2014 graduate, Michigan State U.
 
EXPERT“You want your college debt to be about what a new car would cost you.”Nick Prewett, director of student financial aid, U of Missouri
 
EXPERT“Bachelor’s students for the most part are not the ones getting in trouble, as long as they’re borrowing federal loans.”Eric Best, co-author, The Student Loan Mess
$30,922
$30,922
 
EXPERT“It's not just the amount, it's how you're borrowing."Rohit Chopra, student loan ombudsman, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
$34,905
$34,905
 
CONTEXTMSRP of 2015 Prius Plugin AdvancedToyota
$35,000
$35,000
 
EXPERT“It depends on the quality of the degree and what you plan on doing with it afterwards.”Zakiya Smith, strategy director, Lumina Foundation
$36,000
$36,000
 
EXPERT"That's roughly what a student would be eligible for that's direct subsidized plus a little unsubsidized before they'd complete their degree."Greg Johnson, chief executive officer, Bottom Line
$39,775
$39,775
 
CONTEXTAverage starting salary for a bachelor’s-degree recipient, 2013-14Chronicle reporting
$40,000
$40,000
 
STUDENT“When it starts to become more than a year’s salary...that seems a little crazy.”Jolene Dreier, rising senior at the U. of Nebraska at Lincoln
 
EXPERT“You should borrow no more than your expected annual starting salary.”Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president & publisher, Edvisors.com

 

 
EXPERT“How much is too much depends on some estimation of future earnings. If you knew what you were going to earn when you finished, you could tell. But you don’t know that.”Sandy Baum, research professor, George Washington U.
 
$50,000
$50,000
 
PARENT“My goal is that she has manageable debt when she gets out, and her career can pay off her debt in a timely fashion.”Maggie Burke, mother of incoming freshman, U. of Dayton
 
EXPERT“The answer is it all depends on your major.”Anthony P. Carnevale, director, Georgetown U.'s Center on Education and the Workforce
 
STUDENT“I think it's kind of inevitable for students at the undergraduate or the graduate level to have to take out loans.”Jaclyn LeBatard, rising senior, U. of South Alabama
$53,046
$53,046
 
CONTEXTMedian household income, 2008-12U.S Census Bureau
 
$60,000
$60,000
 
STUDENT“It just seems like the national average for family income is close to that.”Leul Assamenew, entering freshman, U. of Maryland - Baltimore County
 
$70,000
 
$76,934
$76,934
 
CONTEXTCost of in-state tuition, fees, and room and board for four years at Ohio State U.’s main campus, 2010-13Chronicle reporting
 
$80,000
$80,000
 
PARENT“It seems reasonable and it's under $100,000 for the four years.”Mike Whitcher, father with one son at U. at Buffalo and another at SUNY Fredonia
 
$90,000
 
$100,000
$100,000
 
GRADUATE“You should probably pay it back within a reasonable time—maybe 10 years.”Jessica Martin, Dec. 2013 graduate of Wake Forest U.
$106,900
$106,900
 
CONTEXTMSRP of 2015 Mercedes-Benz SL550 ConvertibleMercedes-Benz
$110,000
 
$120,000
 
$130,000
 
$140,000
 
$150,000
$150,000
 
STUDENT“You have to look at your ROI, your return on your investment, and kind of decide what’s most important to you.”Robert Gould, rising junior at Berklee College of Music
 
$160,000
 
$170,000
 
$181,400
$181,400
 
CONTEXTMedian value, owner-occupied housing unit, 2008-12U.S Census Bureau
 
$190,000
 
$200,000
$200,000
 
EXPERT“It depends on which program and which university. For a very good program $200,000 is probably reasonable. For a bad program, $0 is too much.”Miguel Palacios, assistant professor of finance, Owen Graduate School of Management, Vanderbilt U.

Many of these responses hinge on how much graduates can expect to earn. That’s a reasonable way to look at debt. But it’s not an easy guideline when it comes to student loans. Earnings are closely linked to majors and to whether a student goes on to graduate school. But students often change their majors, and their plans. Things beyond their control can change, too—recessions hit, and the market for different kinds of workers shifts.

With so much variation at play, some experts were reluctant to put a number to how much debt is too much. One worry is that students will use a number as a target, as some do now with the federal loan limits set by Congress. Suggesting that all debt is bad, on the other hand, could keep people who would benefit from going to college in the first place—or make those who’ve already overborrowed feel doomed.

If, as many suggested, the answer depends on the student, then this is one more area in which students probably need better guidance than many are currently getting.

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Correction (9/15/2014, 12:19 p.m.): This article originally misidentified where one student attends college. Leul Assamenew is a freshman at the University of Maryland’s Baltimore County campus, not its Baltimore campus.