Journal of Economic Perspectives: Vol. 26 No. 1 (Winter 2012)


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Student Loans: Do College Students Borrow Too Much--Or Not Enough?

Article Citation

Avery, Christopher, and Sarah Turner. 2012. "Student Loans: Do College Students Borrow Too Much--Or Not Enough?" Journal of Economic Perspectives, 26(1): 165-92.

DOI: 10.1257/jep.26.1.165


Total student loan debt rose to over $800 billion in June 2010, overtaking total credit card debt outstanding for the first time. By the time this article sees print, the continually updated Student Loan Debt Clock will show an accumulated total of roughly $1 trillion. Borrowing to finance educational expenditures has been increasing—more than quadrupling in real dollars since the early 1990s. The sheer magnitude of these figures has led to increased public commentary on the level of student borrowing. We move the discussion of student loans away from anecdote by establishing a framework for considering the use of student loans in the optimal financing of collegiate investments. From a financial perspective, enrolling in college is equivalent to signing up for a lottery with large expected gains—indeed, the figures presented here suggest that college is, on average, a better investment today than it was a generation ago—but it is also a lottery with significant probabilities of both larger positive, and smaller or even negative, returns. We look to available—albeit limited—evidence to assess which types of students are likely to be borrowing too much or too little.

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Avery, Christopher (Harvard U)
Turner, Sarah (U VA)

JEL Classifications

D14: Personal Finance
I23: Higher Education and Research Institutions


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