Reframing Student Debt Totals

Up to 40 Percent of Total Student Debt Is for Graduate Education

Only 16 percent of federal student loans (2015–2016) went to students enrolled at CIC member institutions

Increases in the price of attending college and the rise in defaults on student loans have continued to keep student debt in the headlines. But contrary to the popular anecdotes of students who are crushed by high debt levels in order to obtain an undergraduate degree, the facts tell a different story.

CIC recently updated research that continues to shed new light on the question of student debt. In particular, the research shows that debt incurred for undergraduate education at private colleges is a very small part of the $1.4 trillion that is frequently cited in the media.

Although the total amount of outstanding student debt, $1.4 trillion, is a massive number, it’s not a sign of runaway price increases by colleges or of large numbers of students with crushing debt.

In fact, although graduate students represent 14 percent of students in higher education (estimates the College Board), they borrow two-and-a-half times as much money on average each year as undergraduates. A 2014 report by the New America Education Policy Program estimates that approximately 40 percent of all student debt is attributed to graduate education. Moreover, the report notes that graduates in medicine/health sciences and law borrow the most—with median combined undergraduate and graduate debt of $161,772 and $140,616, respectively. While six-figure student debt is significant, so too is the earning potential for newly minted doctors and lawyers. Put another way, personal return on investment must be taken into account: In some cases, borrowing large amounts for college and graduate school may be a wise economic choice.

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. In fact, all private nonprofit colleges and universities account for slightly more than one-third of the total.

Total federal student loan disbursements by sector 2014-2015 - only 15 percent of loans went to CIC students  

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 2015–2016 academic year went to students enrolled at CIC member colleges and universities. Moreover, 39 percent of the loans to students at CIC institutions were used to finance graduate study. Here are the full results of the analysis:
  • Total disbursements in the 2015–2016 academic year: $93.1 billion
  • Disbursements by sector:
    • Public: $44.0 billion (28 percent in graduate loans)
    • Private: $34.9 billion (52 percent in graduate loans)
      • CIC: $14.9 billion (39 percent in graduate loans)
    • For-Profit: $14.2 billion (28 percent in graduate loans)
Any serious assessment of 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, the 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, download "Student Debt: Myths and Facts."

Contact Information

For questions about "Reframing Student Debt Totals," please contact Harold V. Hartley III, CIC senior vice president, at or (202) 466-7230.