Reframing Student Debt Totals

Total federal student loan disbursements by sector, AY 2015-2016 (in billions) - Only 16% of loans went to CIC students

​Graduate Education Made Up 40 Percent of Student Borrowing in 2017–2018

Only 16 percent of federal student loans (2017–2018) went to students enrolled at CIC member institutions.
Increases in the price of attending college and the rise in student loan defaults have continued to keep student debt in the headlines. But the story of student debt is more nuanced than popular anecdotes portray.

CIC recently updated research examining student debt. In particular, the new analysis continues to show that debt incurred for undergraduate education at private colleges is a small part of the roughly $1.4 trillion aggregate student debt frequently cited in the media. This aggregate does not signify runaway college price increases or large numbers of students with crushing debt. In fact, according to the College Board, as of March 2018 only 9 percent of borrowers owed $80,000 or more and held 40 percent of outstanding loan debt.[1] Also according to the College Board, in 2017–2018, 71 percent of undergraduates did not borrow either subsidized or unsubsidized Stafford Loans.[2] Moreover, total federal education loans to undergraduate students decreased by 23 percent between 2012–2013 and 2017–2018 (adjusted for inflation). Meanwhile, the share of federal loans to graduate students, who make up about 14 percent of all postsecondary students, was 40 percent in 2017–2018.[3]

While six-figure student debt is significant, so too is the earning potential for newly minted doctors and other highly skilled professionals. In some cases, borrowing large amounts for college and graduate school may be a wise economic choice, particularly since median earnings among adults 25 and older were $91,600 for those with doctoral degrees and $100,100 for those with professional degrees (for example, those in medicine, law, and pharmacy).[4]

Often lost in the student loan debate is another key fact: Just because private colleges and universities charge higher tuition and fees on average than public institutions, it does not follow that private institutions account for a larger share of total student debt. All private nonprofit colleges and universities account for only about 33 percent of the federal student loan portfolio as of late 2018.[5]

Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid (FSA) Data Center indicate that only 16 percent of all federal student loan disbursements in the 2017–2018 academic year went to students enrolled at CIC member colleges and universities. Moreover, 39 percent of loans to students at CIC institutions were used to finance graduate study. Here are the full results of the analysis:
  • Total disbursements in the 2017–2018 academic year: $86.4 billion
  • Disbursements by sector:
    • Public: $42.4 billion (29 percent in graduate loans)
    • Private: $33.5 billion (39 percent in graduate loans)
      • CIC: $14.2 billion (39 percent in graduate loans)
    • For-Profit: $10.5 billion (37 percent in graduate loans)
Assessing the overall state of student loan debt must take into account its multiple dimensions. Broad-brush estimates tend to obscure important facts by lumping all colleges and universities together. In the case of CIC institutions, generalities mask the great success of a sector of higher education that makes high-quality education accessible to low-income students and others.
For more information on student indebtedness, including loan default rates, download "Student Debt: Myths and Facts."

Contact Information

For questions about “Reframing Student Debt Totals,” please contact CIC Director of Research Projects Lesley McBain at or (202) 466-7230.


  1. The College Board, Trends in Student Aid 2018, p. 19.
  2. The College Board, Trends in Student Aid 2018, p. 19.
  3. The College Board, Trends in Student Aid 2018, p. 17.
  4. The College Board, Trends in Student Aid 2018, p. 24.
  5. U.S. Department of Education Federal Student Aid (FSA) Data Center, “Federal Student Loan Portfolio by School Type, 2018 Q3.” Calculations by the Council of Independent Colleges.

​Council of Independent Colleges
November 2018

Affordability; Student Debt