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Is Six-Figure Student Loan Debt the Norm?

Fewer undergraduates owe big bucks than extreme stories in the media would lead us to believe.

With total student loan debt topping $1 trillion, extreme stories of students being crushed under the weight of six-figure debt can start to seem like the norm. But how common is it to come out of college owing over $100,000? According to some data crunching (PDF) from Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org and Fastweb.com, only 0.2 percent of undergraduate students leave school owing that much or more.


Who are these 0.2 percenters? Last fall the Occupy Colleges Movement spearheaded nationwide campus protests against tuition increases at more than 100 of the nation’s public universities, but if you’re attending state school, you’re probably not accumulating over $100,000 in debt. Indeed, although selective private universities with cushy endowments tend to be generous with their financial aid—making it cheaper for the average middle class family to send their child to Harvard than to one of the schools in the University of California system—half of the grads who owe more than six-figures attended one of the nation’s most selective colleges or universities.

Changing your major makes you nearly twice as likely end up owing more than $100,000. Kantrowitz found that 40.8 percent of undergraduate students who finish school with six-figure student loan debt changed majors. He also found that undergraduates majoring in "theology, architecture and history are much more likely to end up with six-figure student loan debt than students majoring in other fields of study." Computer science, mathematics, and health care majors are the least likely to graduate owing that amount, although it’s not clear from the report why that's the case.

What really increases your odds of racking up eye-popping debt is attending graduate school or deciding to pursue a professional degree. Overall, 6.4 percent of grad students end up owing big bucks. Nearly 10 percent of new Ph.D.s owe that much or more. The hardest hit are law school graduates—36.2 percent owe over $100,000—and the 49 percent of medical school graduates who owe over that amount.

Even though most students owe significantly less than six-figures—in 2011 the average student finished their undergraduate degree owing around $25,000—that doesn’t mean the debt is a good thing. Everyone knows a college grad who's chasing a career she hates simply because she needs the dough to pay her loans. The money college graduates spend paying down loans also can't be put toward, for example, saving for a house. The bottom line is we need schools to get serious about reducing student loan debt. Owing $100,000 may not be the norm now, but it easily could be.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Philip Taylor PT

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