The 1% of the Student Debt Crisis: Owing $150,000 in Loans

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Meet Kelli Space. She went to Northeastern University to get a degree in sociology. And she graduated in $200,000 of student loan debt. In the economy's newest trillion-dollar crisis, she is the 1 percent.

Kelli is not the face of America's student debt problem. Among the 37 million people in this country with student loans to pay off, the median balance is $12,800. A whole 72 percent of borrowers have less than $25,000 left in debt, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. 

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No, students like Kelli are the rarities, the white rhinos. Only about 5 percent of borrowers owe more than $75,000. The question is: How do they get there? 

In some cases, the answer may be that the students simply didn't understand the decision they were making, at least according to a new study of high-debt borrowers by youth advocacy group Young Invincibles. The group surveyed about 6,500 former undergraduate and graduate students, who owed an average of $76,000 in loans (those who only had a bachelor's degree averaged $54,000). A full 65 percent responded that they either misunderstood or were surprised by some aspect their loans. 

A whole 20 percent were taken off-guard by the size of their monthly payments. Another 20 percent were surprised by their repayment terms. About 15 percent hadn't fully anticipated the interest rate they would be paying. Although more than 3,500 graduates took out both federal loans and private bank loans, almost two-thirds said they didn't know the difference between the two (hint: private loans tend to be a lot more expensive to pay off).

"I did not fully understand the extent of what I was getting myself into," one former student, who took out $150,000 in loans, told the researchers. "All I knew was in order to pay tuition, I would need to take out private and federal loans. I was also repeatedly told by several people that I would easily be able to pay off the amount, even though it seemed pretty steep. When I graduated and fully did the math, I knew I was in trouble."

Whose responsibility is it to make sure these students understand their actions when they sign a loan term sheet? The study suggests colleges and universities themselves might need to take a firmer hand in educating young people before they commit. According to the survey, 80 percent of borrowers either learned about their loan options from a college counselor or website. These schools are already providing information. They may just need to provide better information. 

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Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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