There are few things more American adults have in common than student debt. Most recent estimates suggest that more than 45 million Americans collectively owe over $1.7 trillion in student debt.
This diverse population of student debt holders includes senior citizens and teenagers; high-earning professionals and low-income laborers; Republicans and Democrats. Still, there are some groups that are disproportionately impacted by student debt — especially women and people of color.
"$1.7 trillion, is close to 9% of the GDP of the entire country. That's huge! That's significant! And it really touches every American's life in some way," says Nicole Smith, chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. "But their long-term experience really depends on socioeconomic status. And it's highly correlated with race, and it's highly correlated with wealth, and whether you come from a high-income or low-income family."
According to CNBC + Acorn's recently released Invest in You Student Loan Survey conducted by Momentive, 68% of U.S. adults have debt, 15% have federal student loan debt, and women and people of color are disproportionately represented in these groups. Momentive surveyed 5,162 American adults between Jan 10 and Jan 13 online to get a better picture of the communities most impacted by student debt.
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"Reflecting historical access to capital, more people of color and women have federal student loan debt," explain Momentive researchers. About 24% of Black adults say they have federal student loan debt, compared to 15% of Hispanic, 14% of White, and 11% of Asian adults.
Women (19%) are also more likely than men (11%) to have student loan debt, and this trend can be seen across races. In fact, the survey results suggest that 11% of white men, 17% of white women, 15% of Black men, 31% of Black women, 10% of Hispanic men and 19% of Hispanic women have student debt.
These findings echo decades of work from student debt researchers.
According to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), women hold roughly two-thirds of all student debt in the United States.
Data from the National Center for Education Statistics suggests that Black and African American college graduates owe an average of $25,000 more in student loan debt than white college graduates. Four years after graduation, 48% of Black students owe an average of 12.5% more than they borrowed and 29% face monthly student loan payments of $350 or more.
The Brookings Institution estimates that on average, Black college graduates owe $52,726 in student debt while white college grads owe closer to $28,006.
And the Urban Institute reports that among borrowers between the ages of 25 and 55 who took on college debt to finance their own undergraduate degree, Black borrowers owe $32,047 on average, while white and Hispanic borrowers owe roughly $18,685 and 15,853, respectively.
Making clear who is most impacted by student debt is a crucial part of the student debt, and especially student debt forgiveness, conversation, says Smith.
"Do you deserve to have some sort of assistance with going to school? That's really the conversation about student loan forgiveness. Because when you hear objections to it, it has to do with, 'Well, what about all these rich kids who are going to school to be doctors and lawyers? You know, do we subsidize their education, and they come out to be millionaires?" she says, referencing comments by people such as President Joe Biden, who said he would not forgive up to $50,000 of federal student debt because it would benefit "people who have gone to Harvard and Yale and Penn."
"We end up driving the conversation by the tail end of the distribution," explains Smith. "We're having a conversation about the exceptions to the rule."
Braxton Brewington, press secretary for The Debt Collective, a union organization that represents student debt holders, says this "misconception" about what groups are more impacted by student debt is often used "to justify someone's opposition to cancellation."
"Student loan borrowers look like — and are as broad as — the working class itself," he says.
LISTEN NOW: Should student loan debt be forgiven? What are the hidden costs of college? Should financial education start at an earlier age? CNBC reporters and contributors discussed these topics and more on Twitter spaces.
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