The Average Student Loan Debt By Generation (2024)

Average Student Loan Debt By Generation

Student loan debt has ballooned to astonishing numbers, with recent data showing Americans owe over $1.7 trillion in federal and private student loans in the third quarter of 2023.1 While this number has been on an upward trend since the Federal Reserve began tracking it in 2006, it doesn’t affect every generation equally.

In this guide, student debt generally increases for each successive generation, with the numbers dropping slightly for baby boomers. Here’s how student loan balances look for each age group.

Navigate This Article:

Gen X has the Most Student Loan Debt at $44,290

  • Gen X carries nearly 57% of the total student loan debt.
  • Retirement savings are lower for Gen X households with student debt than they are for Gen X households without student debt.2
  • Student loan debt makes Gen Xers pessimistic about their retirement prospects.

Gen X has the most student loan borrowers and the highest balance per borrower. As a result, Gen X also owns the largest portion of the nation’s student loan debt, with more than 57% of the total.

There are many potential factors that explain the high student loan burden for Gen X. For instance, it was one of the first generations for whom defined contribution plans like 401(k) plans began to replace defined benefit (pension) plans.3 This placed the burden of saving for retirement on the employee affecting how much they set aside for the future so they could focus on paying off debt.

In addition, Generation X was the first to face rising college costs. Before the 1980s, college costs were stable and even decreased during some years in the ‘70s.3 But in the early ‘80s, around when the oldest members of Gen X started graduating from high school, college costs started to rise, and they haven’t stopped rising since.

Another factor that may weigh heavily on Gen X is aging parents. Some people in this generation have older parents who may be thinking about entering a nursing home. If those parents don’t have long-term care insurance, Gen X may be unable to pay as much toward student loan debt.

Followed by Baby Boomers at $42,520

  • Baby boomers have the second-highest student loan debt per borrower.
  • However, there are far fewer total borrowers in this age group, resulting in just 7% of the national student loan debt.
  • Many baby boomers took on student debt on behalf of their children.

Most baby boomers don’t have student debt – just 29% of boomers have student debt compared to 59% of millennials.4 However, while many baby boomers have no student loan debt, many from this generation took on student debt to finance their children’s education.

For instance, an AARP survey found that among boomers who took on student debt for someone else, 77% of them did so to pay for their children’s higher education.5 Another 7% did so for their grandchildren. For boomers, the burden of student loans extends as much as two generations past the person borrowing the money.

The same AARP survey found that only 4% of boomer respondents still owed money for their own education. This reinforces the idea that boomers generally have very little student debt, at least when financing their own education. However, this generation is grappling with rising college costs as their children and grandchildren struggle to keep up.

Millennials Average $32,800 Per Borrower

  • Slightly more Gen Xers than millennials have outstanding loans.
  • However, the outstanding loan balances millennials carry are generally much lower than Gen X’s.
  • This leads to millennials having a much smaller share of the total outstanding student debt.

Millennials have a much lower balance per borrower than baby boomers and Generation X. However, as a group, they have more total debt than baby boomers because there are many more borrowers with outstanding loan balances.

Several factors contribute to the student loan debt of millennials, but much of it has to do with trends we are seeing across generations. For instance, tuition and living expenses are higher than they used to be, prompting millennials to spend more. In addition, more people are going to college than in the past. For instance, since 2000, college attendance has increased by 3.5 million students.6

Another factor contributing to the higher college enrollment among millennials was the 2008 financial crisis. Many millennials were still in high school when unemployment spiked due to the recession. With poor job prospects, many millennials who may not otherwise have done so enrolled in college.

The effects of student loan debt on millennials can be far-reaching. In some cases, it might be driving lower homeownership rates and preventing some millennials from moving out of their current homes. While attending college can lead to higher wages in the long run, many millennials still struggle to keep up with high student loan balances.

Gen Z has the Least Student Loan Debt at $14,380

  • More than a third of Gen Zers currently have student loans.7
  • Many Gen Zers haven’t yet started college, meaning the total student loan debt for Gen Z may increase.
  • Some Gen Z borrowers have started making student loan payments and feel overwhelmed.8

Despite rising college costs, an overwhelming majority (83%) of Gen Zers in the U.S. say college education is “very important” or “somewhat important.” 9 This is true even as concerns about college affordability remain high and confidence in college education remains low.

The oldest members of Gen Z – many of whom are already 22 or older – are the least likely to rate college as very important. Still, 33% of that group rates college as very important, compared to 43% for the generation’s youngest members.

Gen Zers are also more likely to be enrolled in college and have a college-educated parent than millennials and Gen Xers at the same age.10

These factors suggest a possibility of rising student debt for Gen Z, as more of them enroll in and graduate from college. While their student debt is small right now, it may increase in the years ahead.

In Conclusion

Student loan debt continues to increase nationwide, but it doesn’t affect every generation equally. Gen X, some of whom are nearing retirement age, currently has the most student loan debt. Generally, student loan debt increases with age, with slightly lower balances for baby boomers, the oldest generation the data currently captures.

However, baby boomers were the last generation to attend college before costs began increasing. Before then, prices were stable, with costs declining in some years.

The result for future generations could be an ever-increasing student loan burden as people age. Time will tell whether this trend proves true or if other factors will lead to lower student loan balances in the years ahead.

More Student Loan Debt Statistics

Average Student Loan Debt Per Month
Average Student Loan Debt by Degree
Average Student Loan Debt by Year
Average Student Loan Debt by State
Average Student Loan Debt by Age
Average Student Loan Debt by Race

Data Sources: