Student Debt by Student Characteristics

We continue our exploration into trends in the federal student loan debt included in the US Department of Education’s College Scorecard data. This blog post examines federal loan debt across various student characteristics, including gender, first-generation status, Pell status, and institutional specialty status. By way of review, the national average for four-year public universities in the College Scorecard data was $15,710 in the most recent cohort (AY2020), while the Texas average for public universities was $14,119. This places Texas 33rd out of the 50 states in the data.

Student Loan Debt Breakdown

In our previous blog post, we noticed that a relationship seemed to exist between median loan debt and the percentage of underrepresented minorities (URM) enrolled as undergraduates. However, that relationship was contingent upon the type of institution. Median student loan amount is lowest at Hispanic-Serving Institutions (HSIs) and highest at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). We will use these specialty categories as a framework for comparisons throughout the remainder of this blog post. Each of the visualizations below shows the weighted average of federal student loan debt across all four-year public universities in the College Scorecard dataset.

  • In the first tab (Median Loan (Gender)), female students borrow more than males across all three institution types. The average difference between females and males is $902 ($14,874 for females vs $13,973 for males)The smallest gap of $434 ($12,293 for females vs $11,859 for males) can be found at HSIs, with the largest gap of $2,399 ($17,530 for females vs $15,131 for males) at HBCUs. 
  • In the second tab (Median Loan (1st Gen)), the overall difference between First-Generation and Not First-Generation students is less than $270 ($14,628 for First-Generation students vs $14,362 for Not First-Generation students). However, when breaking-out the data by institution type, Not HBCU/HSI institutions is the only group where the overall trend holds true, as First-Generation students at HSIs and HBCUs borrow less, on average, than the Not First-Generation students at these institutions.
  • The third tab (Median Loan (Pell)) shows the differences between students who receive Pell grants and those who do not, as Pell is often used as a proxy for low-income status. Across all institution types, Pell recipients ($15,635) average almost $2,800 more in federal loans than their Not Pell counterparts ($12,915). This rank-order holds true across each of the three institutional groups, with the largest difference at HBCUs of almost $6,000. 
  • The Scorecard data also provide federal loan amounts by family income status (Median Loan (Family Income)), which provides a slightly more nuanced view of student loan borrowing habits than Pell status. In general, students from middle income families ($30,000-$75,000) borrow slightly more than the other income groups at $14,644. Students from low income families borrow an average of $14,442, while students from highest income families (above $75,000) have the lowest average loan debt at $14,311. Within the institutional types, the rank-ordering of federal loan average varies across Family Income levels.  

NOTE: Due to the volume of information in each visualization below, we recommend that you click the “Full Screen” button in the bottom-right corner to enhance viewing of the data.

So What?

To this point in our review of federal student loan debt from the College Scorecard data, one of the primary observations is that students who have been historically most at-risk are the ones who are incurring the highest student debt loads. This is true across a variety of characteristics, including gender, first-generation status, family income level, and race/ethnicity, especially at HBCUs. These trends will be important in upcoming blog posts, as we look beyond amounts borrowed to see how successfully borrowers are in repaying student loan debts over time.

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