As the 2020 presidential election approaches, people with student loan debt are paying closer attention to where Democratic candidates stand regarding the student loan crisis. According to CNBC’s Annie Nova, that’s because “the average college graduate leaves school $30,000 in the red,” which is three times more debt than students had in the 1990s.

Thirty thousand might not seem like a heavy bag for one person, but directing a chunk of their monthly paycheck toward student debt is hindering over 40 million Americans. That reality inhibits graduates from investing in a business idea, starting a family, or treating themselves to the career they want rather than the one they have to have. Is it all worth it?

We surveyed 983 people with student loan debt to figure out how large the bill is for each degree type and whether graduates believe that debt is valuable. Our findings also reveal what graduates give up to pay off their financial obligations.

A Look at Nationwide Student Debt

Our study looked at four types of degrees: associate degree, Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, and graduate degree. We found that, on average, people who achieved a higher level of education ended up with more student debt.

An associate degree holder spent nearly $200 per month on their college loan, compared to $281 for graduate students. However, most graduates spent between $100 and $199 on their monthly payment, with 18.2% spending less than $100.

The heftiness of the monthly payment was not what concerned our participants, though: Regardless of the amount, they would do other things with their earnings if student debt weren’t on the bill. Fifty-two percent said they would pay off their outstanding credit card debt. With the U.S. consumer credit line having recently increased, Americans have a lot more room to borrow … and pay off.

After credit cards, our participants were concerned with other debts: 41% would pay off another type of debt, such as medical and dental bills. But there’s more to life than paying bills. Our participants would also travel, upgrade their car, change jobs, and start a family if they had more financial flexibility.

Affording Education

Buyer’s remorse rarely helps the person who has already made the purchase, but it can serve as a teacher, encouraging future generations to spend differently. Looking at the recent declines in college enrollment in the U.S., it seems the younger generation is learning from those who came before them. Although 80% of all borrowers said their degree was worth the debt, 53% couldn’t attest to their college education helping with their current career path.

Political hopefuls are discussing eliminating student debt because life has become increasingly more difficult for Americans who are feeling financially strapped. According to our findings, those who held a two-year degree ended up with an average of $24,515 in debt, which is nearly three times less than those who obtained a graduate degree.

However, associate degree holders were more likely to find difficulty managing other expenses and bills. Those with a Bachelor of Science degree were the least likely to have trouble managing their finances.

Although the majority of respondents said a degree is worth the debt, more than half of all participants felt their career potential was limited because of educational affordability.

Student Debt Impedes Lifestyle

Billionaire Robert F. Smith shocked Americans in May of 2019 when he vowed to pay off $34 million worth of student debt for 400 Morehouse graduates – but he didn’t stop there. Later that year, Smith announced he would also pay off loans that the students’ parents took out. His good deed signals that college debt can be a familial responsibility, and he desires to relieve everyone of that obligation.

When we looked at the history of higher education within our participants’ families, we found that only 79.4% of third-generation college students felt held back by debt, compared to 88.5% of first-generation students in our study.

Homeownership was one of the ways people felt held back. Nearly 30% of our participants said college debt prevented them from buying a home. This is where billionaire Smith’s foresight shows: More than 12% of our participants also shared that their student debt prevented them from being financially independent of their parents. Read on for some personal stories about college debt and weighing its value.

How Borrowers Feel About Student Debt Forgiveness

While the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates hash out their student loan forgiveness plans, only 90% of Americans with college debt will be leaning in: 10% of borrowers felt no type of debt should be forgiven. However, more than half of respondents said student debt should be forgiven, regardless of how much is owed.

Upon further examination, we learned that 43.7% of survey participants felt both federal and private debt should be forgiven. And, when it comes to casting their ballots, 47.1% of people would consider voting for one candidate over another based on their debt forgiveness policy.

Student Debt Forgiveness Wins America’s Heart

In the 1990s, the average college graduate owed about $10,000 in student debt. Nowadays, debt forgiveness is on almost every student’s mind, and the prospect of going into debt seems to be having an impact on college enrollment. Our findings show that graduates have aspirations, such as owning a home, traveling, and having children, but their bills are deferring their dreams.

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Methodology and Limitations

We surveyed 983 people who currently have student debt to measure public perception of college debt forgiveness policies that are being discussed in politics right now. Around 19% of our respondents had an associate degree, 23% had a Bachelor of Arts, 38% had a Bachelor of Science, and 21% had a graduate degree. The ages of survey respondents varied from 18 to 70 with a mean age of 33 and a standard deviation of 8.6 years.

We asked respondents to report their annual income and monthly student loan payments. We removed extreme outliers from this data. We did not weight our data or statistically test our hypotheses. Survey data has limitations that include exaggeration, telescoping, and selective memory. This was a purely exploratory look at how college debt forgiveness could affect the lives of people with student debt.

Fair Use Statement

As the 2020 presidential election approaches, discussions about college debt and forgiveness plans will reach your watercooler. So enjoy our content and freely use it for noncommercial purposes. There are two conditions, though: Please cite the authors and link back to this page.