Very few people actually owe $100,000 or more

The numbers tell the tale: According to the College Board, the amount undergraduates borrowed in federal loans dropped last year to $4,510 per student from $5,830 in the 20102011 academic year. Loans taken out annually by students and parents for all higher education institutions also fell, from a peak of $127.7 billion in 201011 to $105.5 billion last year.

Well, for one thing, there are fewer people going to college and grad school these days to take out loans

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What’s behind the drop? Attendance tends to climb during a recession when people can’t find jobs and fall when the economy recovers and that pattern played out as usual after the 2008 financial crisis, explains the Urban Institute’s Baum. In better economic times parents may also be able to pay more toward college costs, decreasing the need for dependent students to borrow. And, over the past few years, a decline in the number of for-profit schools, where borrowing tends to be heaviest, could also be a contributing factor, Baum adds.

Economic recovery has also enabled states and schools to do more to rein in costs and borrowing. According to The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), state spending on higher education following the Great Recession increased an average of 23 percent over the four years ending in 2016. In addition, TICAS found that undergraduates at four-year public or private colleges are more likely to get grants from their school these days, and the grants are typically about $1,000 higher.

What’s largely driving the big growth in total student debt is the build-up of interest on older loans, particularly as more borrowers enroll in income-based repayment plans

What is not yet clear from the data: whether the decline in loans is also partly a reaction to the increasingly negative storyline around borrowing. New America’s Fishman is seeing that shift in attitude in focus groups. “A few years ago, people were saying things like, ‘Borrowing is a means to an end, it’s just what I have to do to go to college,'” she says. “Now people are saying, ‘I’m going to do everything I can to avoid borrowing at all costs.'”

Although the decline in student loans may seem at odds with everything you’ve heard lately, it actually isn’t. It’s simply that two different things are being measured-total debt versus Spring Hill financiTN payday loans new borrowing. The income-based plans, which have been expanded several times over the past decade, allow borrowers to stretch payments over 20 or 25 years, instead of the standard 10, to lower their monthly bills. But interest continues to accrue and adds to the amount owed. Today, roughly half of loan dollars being repaid are enrolled in income-driven plans, compared with 27 percent just four years ago.

Also contributing to the build-up of total debt: A surge in big-balance borrowing by graduate students and parents (more on that in a moment). Although the number of people involved is small, they have an outsized impact on outstanding balances.

In absolute numbers, people with six-figure debt really are rare-what Fishman calls “unicorns in borrowing land.” Overall, just 6 percent of the balances on student loans are $100,000 or more. But in dollar terms, they’re huge, accounting for one-third of total debt, the College Board reports.

It’s mostly graduate students who belong to the $100,000 club, and membership is growing fast. Among borrowers with a graduate degree who started paying off loans in 2014, 20 percent owed more than $100,000, up from 8 percent in 2000, says Adam Looney, an economist at the Brookings Institute. And half of borrowers with professional degrees-think doctors, lawyers, dentists-owe $100,000 or more; 20 percent owe $200,000 and up, the College Board reports. That doesn’t include their undergraduate debt.