How much student loan debt is too much? The answer might surprise you.


Exactly how much student loan debt is considered appropriate for a student to take on? According to a group of anonymous college admissions officers surveyed by Inside Higher Edquite a bit.

Thirty-three percent of admissions officers at public schools responded that $20,000 to $30,000 of debt is reasonable for a college education. Forty-eight percent of admissions officers from private schools agreed with the range. By contrast, only 2 percent of both private and public admissions officers responded that ‘no debt at all’ should be considered the normal amount debt taken on by students.

These numbers don’t exactly reflect the guarantee for an “affordable college education” that’s often promised by many schools. Instead, the normalization of high student loan debt is becoming more prevalent within institutes of higher education.

But tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt doesn’t have to be (and shouldn’t be) standard issue for those seeking a higher education.

Here are a few steps you can take to avoid becoming a stat in the national average:

Seek alternative forms of financial aid

Student loans should not be the first form of financial aid. Grants and scholarships are both excellent ways to add an extra boost towards financing your education. This money will not have to be paid back and it won’t accumulate interest. It essentially reduces your tag price for higher education – and does so without resulting in debt.

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Talk with multiple financial counselors

Not all counselors will give the same advice or information. Set up multiple meetings with different counselors to get varying perspectives. Don’t feel pressured into signing loan agreements and push hard when asking about alternative forms of financial aid. Though most college admissions care about the financial security of their students, they may be formulaic in doling out aid. Make sure you’re comfortable with all your options before making any financial decisions.

Look beyond traditional routes for higher education

The mainstream road to higher education has been laid pretty firmly, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other fulfilling paths. Community college is a viable alternative to some of the more expensive colleges. Trade school, online courses, and internships are other great options. More expensive institutions can’t always be justified based on a traditionally idyllic college experience.

Understand what your repayment might look like

Taking out loans can feel abstract, particularly as the numbers soar. Younger students with potentially less financial experience are taking out sums without feeling the immediate and very real financial consequences. Understand what your potential repayment will look like and assess the impact of payments in your projected financial future. If student loan debt feels abstract now, it certainly won’t when you receive your first bill.

Use calculators and spreadsheets to determine the impact that student loans will have on your future personal finances. Include interest rates and expected pay-off plans when breaking down the numbers.

Don’t let average student loan debt numbers guide your financial decisions! By doing everything in your power to lower the overall debt taken on for a higher education, you’ll be setting a groundwork for those behind you as well. For more information, check out our Student Loan resource center.

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  • Stapler Confessions

    “Use calculators and spreadsheets to determine the impact that student loans will have on your future personal finances. Include interest rates and expected pay-off plans when breaking down the numbers.”

    Yes! Absolutely! And compare these expected payoffs to your anticipated post-graduation salary range — after tax.

    • Claire Murdough

      I completely agree!!! Thinking about projected salary is such an eye-opening way to consider how debt could impact your financial security. Thanks for the great advice!

  • Justin Duckwitz

    I think advising military service is also a great idea. Not only are you young but your learning about being in the workplace and after time served your way ahead of your average peers in not only education benefits, you have verifiable experience that almost all companies value in the hiring process. I personally went to Naval Nuclear School and it has opened up so many opportunities for me. I was in a $30 an hour job by the time I was 24. Just another thought in the endless cycle but the biggest plus was I was debt free and had Illinois Veterans grant and GI Bill to help with college when and if I am ready to go back to college!!! The best advice I could give was not to attend college until you have a specific career path in mind. Acquiring debt without a purpose is really hurting my generation of peers!

    • Claire Murdough

      Great added perspective Justin!

      Having a plan and a path is such an important thing to keep in mind when taking on debt. Unfortunately, it’s not always factored into the payoff equation. I’m so happy to hear that you were able to pursue your career without taking on any debt!

      Thanks for the comment 🙂