Student-Loan Debt Surpasses Credit Cards

Consumers now owe more on their student loans than their credit cards.

Americans owe some $826.5 billion in revolving credit, according to June 2010 figures from the Federal Reserve. (Most of revolving credit is credit-card debt.) Student loans outstanding today — both federal and private — total some $829.785 billion, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FinAid.org and FastWeb.com.

“The growth in education debt outstanding is like cooking a lobster,” Mr. Kantrowitz says. “The increase in total student debt occurs slowly but steadily, so by the time you notice that the water is boiling, you’re already cooked.”

By his math, there is $605.6 billion in federal student loans outstanding and $167.8 billion in private student loans outstanding. He estimates that $300 billion in federal student loan debts have been incurred in the last four years.

Partially, this is a story about Americans paying down credit card debt. Some are seeking a new frugality, but many credit card companies are raising minimum monthly payments or cutting off new and existing lines that consumers in the past may have turned to during tough times. Revolving credit, the majority of which is credit card debt, reached a high in September 2008 of $975.7 billion, according to Fed data. A consumer who juggles both credit-card and student-loan debt is likely to pay of the credit-card first, as that debt tends to carry a higher interest rate.

In terms of volume, a person is likely to borrow more money to go to school today than, say, spend on necessities using a credit card during a patch of unemployment. Tuition at public and private four-year universities last year went as high as $26,000, with additional fees for housing and books not showing any signs of letting up either. It’s no surprise that many parents, reeling from the downturn, would turn to borrowing to make up the difference. With the cost of education increasing rapidly and the duration of unemployment increasing, perhaps the surprise is that this turning point didn’t hit earlier.

Student Loan Justice, a Washington State-based student loan advocacy group issued a statement on the student-loan eclipse, estimating that media coverage of credit cards exceeds coverage of student loans “by a factor of approximately 15-to-1 based on unscientific news surveys conducted since 2007.”

But student loan debt, in many ways, is different than credit-card debt. These loans typically can’t be discharged in bankruptcy. They have different repayment terms, some of which can catch some have heavy consequences for borrowers who miss payments and borrowers’ families.

Copyright 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

One response to “Student-Loan Debt Surpasses Credit Cards

  1. And don’t forget PLUS loans–I got a nasty surprise when my oldest went to college and he could not get financial aid unless I took out PLUS loans or, as the financial aide counselor advised us, “ruined my credit so I could not borrow money”. Then, they would give the student loans to my son. How’s that for financial advice from a college student loan office? There is another cost here–with student loan debt getting so high, recent graduates can’t afford to go into fields like teaching, social work and other low to mid-salary range jobs because they don’t make enough money to pay their student loans. Where is that going to leave us?

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