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Yes, the ‘median American’ does have $0 in federal student loan debt

A viral tweet claims the "median American" has no student loan debt. That's true, but median is not the same as average. We explain what the median really means.
Credit: AP
FILE- In this May 22, 2018, file photo the Baker-Berry Library stands across The Green at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

President Joe Biden announced on April 6 his administration would extend the pause on federal student loan repayments through Aug. 31, 2022. This is the sixth extension of the pause since it began in March 2020.

Several Democratic lawmakers have demanded Biden go further and cancel student debt instead of extending the pause. In turn, other politicians and public figures argued against student debt cancellation. Writer Matthew Yglesias, in his argument against student debt cancellation, claimed that the median American has $0 in student loan debt.

Yglesias is using a term many haven’t heard since high school — the median is the exact middle of a set of numbers. So if you put all Americans in a line ordered from least student debt to most student debt, Yglesias is claiming the person in the middle of that line would have $0 in student loan debt.  

THE QUESTION

Does the median American have $0 in federal student loan debt?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes, the median American does have $0 in federal student loan debt, because less than half of all Americans have student loans. But that doesn’t take into account the massive debt owed by 43 million Americans.

WHAT WE FOUND

If you lined up all Americans from those who owe nothing in federal student loans to those who owe the most, the person in the exact middle would indeed owe $0 in student loans. That’s because there are 43 million Americans that have federal student loan debt, according to data from the federal student loan portfolio, compared to the total population of 331 million people, per the U.S. Census

But a median number is not the same as the average. The average is the total debt divided by the total population, and is a much more commonly used calculation.  

If you were to calculate the average federal student debt for all Americans, you’d get $4,853.96. You get that by taking the total student debt — $1.611 trillion — and dividing the total U.S. population from it — 331,893,745 in the most recent Census Bureau population estimate.

This data is strictly for federal student loan debt, which excludes private student loans. The Education Data Initiative says $1.611 trillion of the nation’s $1.749 trillion in student loan debt is federal loan debt. The rest is private loan debt. There is no federal data for the number of Americans with private student loan debt but no federal student debt.

According to the Education Data Initiative, 65% of 2021 college students graduated with student debt. The Institute for College Access & Success said that in 2019, 62% of college seniors graduated with student debt. 

And many Americans attended college but did not graduate. While over half of American adults 25 or older have attended at least some college, less than half stay in college for more than two years. The Census says 48.4% of the population 25 and older has at least a two-year degree, and 37.9% of the population age 25 and older has at least a four-year degree.

Pew Research found that in 2016, the median borrower with outstanding student loan debt for their own education owed $17,000. Among borrowers with less than a bachelor’s degree — students who went to community college, trade school or dropped out of school before graduation — the median self-reported debt was about $10,000. For borrowers with a bachelor’s degree, the median was $25,000. For the borrowers with postgraduate degrees, the median self-reported student loan debt was $40,000. 

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