Student Loans


Student Loans

About 44 million people in the U.S. owe on student loans. At more than $1.5 trillion, education debt now exceeds our credit card balances and auto loans.

About 44 million people in the U.S. owe on student loans. At more than $1.5 trillion, education debt now exceeds our credit card balances and auto loans.

Student loans have become so ingrained in our culture that they’ve appeared everywhere from workplace benefits packages to game show awards. And as tuition continues to rise – it has more than tripled since the 1970s - student debt headlines are  likely to continue to drive traffic for local papersmagazines and national TV broadcasts.

While most Americans say student loans are worth the cost in the long run, nearly nine in 10 also believe that too many borrowers have a hard time paying back their debt. Arguments over the best way to address the country’s collective burden have grown into a divisive political topic.

Because student debt is such a hot topic, it’s also easy for time-pressed journalists to fall into common reporting traps, such as highlighting misleading statistics or publicizing extreme cases of borrowing as if they were typical.

The following information will help journalists find reliable data, cut through misleading statistics and understand the nuances of the federal loan system, including who is borrowing and how well they are repaying.

Updated September 2020


Data/Research: Student Loans

Understanding the data behind student loans is essential for reporters covering this beat.


Project on Student Debt, from The Institute for College Access & Success for annual reports on average debt-loads of four-year college graduates.

Federal Student Loan Data Center to download macro-level federal student loan information.


History and Background: Student Loans

When Student Loans Started in America

Students loans — and especially today’s widespread reliance on them — are a relatively recent phenomenon in the American higher education system. While the country’s use of student loans dates back to 1838 at Harvard University, it wasn’t until the late 1950s that the federal government got into the business of lending to college students. 


Glossary: Student Loans


Consolidation combines multiple federal loans into a single, new loan. It does not reduce the amount of interest a borrower pays — the new loan will carry a weighted average interest rate of the existing loans — but consolidation can be useful to access certain repayment plans. If a borrower has loans from before 2011 or a Perkins loan, consolidation is necessary to access income-driven repayment or Public Service Loan Forgiveness.


What to Know About Debt Forgiveness

In the years since then presidential candidate Bernie Sanders introduced the idea of widespread debt forgiveness into the mainstream, it’s become a common rallying cry among younger, progressive voters. Here’s a breakdown of the existing options and new proposals.


Student Debt and Race

A college degree is widely considered one of the most reliable paths toward upward economic mobility. But for minority students, that promise often falls short. That’s in part because student debt exacerbates existing racial wealth gaps.

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Reporting on College Affordability? Keep 3 Lessons in Mind.
The Education Department’s James Kvaal speaks about the future of higher education and the Biden administration’s role.

As education journalists analyze new federal higher education proposals and the continuing public debate about student loan forgiveness, a panel featuring a top U.S. Department of Education official offers some lessons to keep in mind.

photo of Dino Sabic by Kathleen Greeson for EdSurge
EWA Radio

The Hopes and Fears of Teenagers
How listening to young people might improve college and job training programs intended to help them reach better futures (EWA Radio Episode 291)

“People can’t tell me what they’re going to college for. But they put themselves in thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars of debt—that doesn’t sound like it makes any sense. That’s like buying a car and not knowing how to drive.”

2022 on wood blocks image
EWA Radio

New Year, New Higher Ed Stories
From continued COVID-19 fallout to federal higher ed policy shifts, it’s a big year ahead for colleges and universities (EWA Radio Episode 284)

This will be a momentous year for higher education – as colleges attempt to recover from COVID shutdowns, student loan bills come due again, and big changes come to admissions offices. What will college look like this year? How are institutions planning to spend billions of dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funds? And how bad a hit are overall enrollment numbers going to take in the third year of the pandemic?

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Top 10 Most-Read EWA Blogs of 2021
Journalist members wrote practical resources to help their fellow reporters all year long.

Supporting our talented journalist members is one of the best parts of my job here at the Education Writers Association.

Many of them have written insightful, well-researched and, yes, educational blog posts over the course of the year. And several took time from full-time reporting jobs to write these resources – all with the purpose of helping their fellow journalists do their jobs.

EWA Radio

$100K in Debt for a $50K Job
Wall Street Journal investigates USC’s high-priced online social work master’s program that recruited low-income students (EWA Radio Episode 282)

The Wall Street Journal’s investigations team is tackling the student loan debt crisis from multiple angles, including digging into questionable recruiting and loan practices by top schools. Case in point: the University of Southern California’s online graduate program in social work.

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

5 Tips for Reporting on Student Loan Debt After the Pandemic Pause
Get advice and ideas to localize stories that go beyond covering federal student loans.

The planned early 2022 restart of federal student loan payments will renew the nation’s attention to the approximately 42 million Americans who owe an estimated $1.6 trillion in education debt.

Reporters can find fresh angles and new information to help borrowers by pursuing accountability stories, and by paying particular attention to debt repayment, forgiveness and collections of overdue balances, three veteran reporters said at the Education Writers Association’s 2021 Higher Education Seminar.

Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Reporting on Biden’s Higher Education Policies in a Divisive Era
Tips for covering state and federal policies, enrollment declines, campus challenges and more

University leaders hope to take advantage of a potentially historic influx of federal funding, re-engage students who left during the pandemic and stave off longer-term enrollment drops. 

They face these challenges amid bitter fights over mask and vaccine mandates, and political polarization over affirmative action, freedom of speech and allegations of “cancel culture.” 

National Seminar graphic

75th EWA National Seminar
Orlando • July 24-26, 2022

Celebrating 75 Years! 

As those in education and journalism work to recover from an extended pandemic, bringing together the community has never been more critical. The Education Writers Association’s 75th annual National Seminar will provide a long-awaited opportunity to gather in person for three days of training, networking, and inspiration. 

Blog: The Educated Reporter

Tips for Scrutinizing Data on College Value
Are college students getting the best education for their (and taxpayers’) money?

What’s the “value” of a college education? As college costs rise, more people are questioning what they’re getting for their tuition and tax money. 

Reporters investigating this important topic can access a growing number of databases that are starting to capture at least some aspects of value, according to Dominique Baker, an education policy professor at Southern Methodist University, and Robert Kelchen, a professor at Seton Hall University and data manager for the Washington Monthly College Rankings. 

Miguel Cardona
Blog: The Educated Reporter

Miguel Cardona’s Education Priorities: Addressing Disparities, Student Loans, Pre-K and More

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona made his priorities clear at the Education Writers Association’s 2021 National Seminar. 

Cardona vowed to “unapologetically address achievement disparities” and urge all schools to reopen for in-person learning during the wide-ranging conversation on May 3.


Miguel Cardona: Why Schools Should Reopen Fully and Train Their Police Officers Better
What education reporters can expect from the Biden administration

Public schools that don’t offer full-time, in-person learning for students five days a week next fall risk intervention from the U.S. Education Department.

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona shared this message with journalists, just two months after his Senate confirmation, during the Education Writers Association’s 2021 National Seminar. 

EWA 74th National Seminar  graphic

74th EWA National Seminar
Virtual, May 2-5, 2021

The Education Writers Association’s 74th National Seminar will focus on the theme of “Now What? Reporting on Education Amid Uncertainty.” Four afternoons of conversations, training and presentations will give attendees deeper understanding of these crises, as well as tools, skills and context to help them better serve their communities — and advance their careers. 

To be held May 2-5, 2021, the seminar will feature education newsmakers, including leaders, policy makers, researchers, practitioners and journalists. And it will offer practical data and other skills training. 

Pathways: Experts Offer a Quick Roundup on Student Loan Forgiveness

Pathways: Experts Offer a Quick Roundup on Student Loan Forgiveness
Webinar will provide journalists with resources, context and answers about education debt forgiveness plans.

Proposals to forgive some or all of the nation’s $1.5 trillion in student loans are making headlines as the Biden administration considers how to restart the economy and make the U.S. education system more equitable.

In this EWA webinar, speakers discussed the impact of student debt forgiveness on access to higher education and pathways to good jobs. They shared their insights and answered audience questions on this pressing topic.

Education Surges to Top Tier of Presidential Race Amid Pandemic
Blog: The Educated Reporter

Education Surges to Top Tier of Presidential Race Amid Pandemic
Journalists offer insights, story ideas on covering the schools angle

Education is not typically an issue that comes to the forefront in presidential races.

But months of an ongoing coronavirus pandemic have elevated conversations about how schools and elected officials are tackling the issue. In fact, education took a front seat in high-stakes negotiations this summer over a federal stimulus bill that has stalled.