Places That Take the Longest to Pay Off Student Loans

 July 8, 2019
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While the standard student loan repayment plan aims to retire your debt 10 years after payment begins, many borrowers finds the process dragging on even longer. Whether you owe a large amount or have experienced setbacks along the way, 10 years might be too tight of a deadline to repay your debt.

To see where borrowers are having the hardest time paying off their debt within a decade, Student Loan Hero looked at mature loans (those at least 5 years old) in the 100 largest metros to see how many still had balances on them after 15 years.

Here’s what we uncovered about the rate of debt repayment across the U.S., along with some tips on how to get rid of your student loans once and for all.

Key findings

  • People in New Orleans, La., are more likely to still owe money 15 years after borrowing than anywhere else in the country, with 12.3% of mature student loans above that age mark. San Francisco, where 10.8% of mature loans are over 15 years old, comes in second.
  • Only 5.1% of mature loans in Harrisburg, Pa., are older than 15 years, the lowest rate on our list. Greenville, S.C. and Colorado Springs, Colo., had the second and third lowest rate of 15 year old loans, at 5.8% and 6.1%, respectively.
  • The median balance on loans over 15 years old across all metros was $3,376. Local medians ranged from $1,892 in Columbia, S.C., to $5,553 in Orlando, Fla.
  • The amount owed doesn’t seem to be a major factor in how quickly borrowers pay off debt. Borrowers in the second-slowest metro (San Francisco) had balances on loans older than 15 years that were almost three times higher than those in the third-slowest metro (Columbia).

Places that take the longest to pay off debt

The proportion of loans over 15 years old varied pretty widely across the U.S. The highest percentage of the metro areas surveyed was in New Orleans, where 12.3% of borrowers’ mature loans surpassed this benchmark.

This was well above the second-oldest student debt portfolio, which was in San Francisco, where 10.8% of loans are over 15 years old — however it also had 3.3% of its mature student loans older than 20 years, surpassing the 2.1% of over 20-year-old loans that is New Orleans.

Meanwhile, third on the list was Columbia, with 10.4% of mature student loans over 15 years old, followed by a tie among Knoxville, Tenn.; Tucson, Ariz.; and Rochester, N.Y., each with 10.1% in old loans.

The reasons borrowers take longer to pay off student loans are multifaceted and not necessarily the same among all metros. In New Orleans and Columbia, a lower-than-average income might make it harder for borrowers to pay back their debt quickly.

While the national average income is $51,960, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average income in New Orleans is $44,860. In Columbia, it’s $44,680.

San Francisco residents, however, enjoy a larger-than-average income of $72,400. But at the same time, San Franciscans have a larger-than-average number of mature loans per borrower than many other metros (3.7 as compared with 3.4 in New Orleans and 2.8 in Columbia).

Plus, San Francisco has one of the highest costs of living in the country — 96.3% higher than the national average, according to Kiplinger — so residents might be spending a larger portion of their paychecks on rent and other living costs.

Even with their higher salaries, San Francisco borrowers appear to be having a hard time repaying debt of this magnitude in one of the nation’s most expensive cities.

The 10 Places That Take the Longest to Pay Off Student Loans
Rank Metro Area % of Mature Student Loans Older Than 15 Years % of Mature Student Loans Older Than 20 Years Median Balance of Loans Over 15 Years Old Average Number of Mature Loans per Borrower
1 New Orleans 12.30% 2.10% $3,405 3.4
2 San Francisco 10.80% 3.30% $4,128 3.7
3 Columbia, S.C. 10.40% 2.50% $1,892 2.8
4 Knoxville, Tenn. 10.10% 2.90% $3,235 3.4
5 Tucson, Ariz. 10.10% 2.30% $3,225 3.5
6 Rochester, N.Y. 10.10% 1.80% $3,419 3.5
7 Oklahoma City 9.90% 1.60% $3,382 3.6
8 Syracuse, N.Y. 9.80% 2.60% $4,068 3.9
9 San Diego 9.80% 2.40% $2,917 3.4
10 Sarasota, Fla. 9.80% 2.00% $3,667 3.6
* Mature loans are those that originated at least five years earlier.

Places that pay off student loans fastest

While more than 10% of mature student loans in New Orleans, San Francisco and Columbia have been around for longer than 15 years, that rate is nearly cut in half in metros like Harrisburg, Greenville and Colorado Springs.

Harrisburg borrowers tend to pay off their student loans the fastest, the data showed, with just 5.1% of loans older than 15 years, and only 0.5% older than 20 years.

Greenville and Colorado Springs also had low rates of loans of 15+ years, with rates of 5.8% and 6.1%, respectively.

So why are residents of these metros able to pay back their student loans faster? The amount owed doesn’t appear to be a major factor, since most borrowers owed somewhere close to the median balance of $3,376 after 15 years. And income isn’t especially high in Harrisburg, Greenville or Colorado Springs, with averages of $49,540, $43,960, and $51,430, respectively — all below that national average of $51,960.

But these metro areas do share a lower-than-average cost of living, which might play a role in their residents’ capacity to pay off debt. Rent levels including consumer prices in Harrisburg, for instance, are more than 50% lower than they are in San Francisco. In Greenville, they’re 47% lower, and in Colorado Springs, rent and prices are nearly 69% lower.

So even with lower-than-average incomes, residents of these metros might be able to find a better balance between affording living expenses and paying off their student loans.

10 Places That Pay Off Student Loans Fastest
Rank Metro Area % of Mature Student Loans Older Than 15 Years % of Mature Student Loans Older Than 20 Years Median Balance of Loans Over 15 Years Old Average Number of Mature Loans per Borrower
100 Harrisburg, Pa. 5.1% 0.5% $2,444 3.6
99 Greenville, S.C. 5.8% 0.8% $2,941 3.6
98 Colorado Springs, Colo. 6.1% 1.2% $2,905 3.4
97 Ogden, Utah 6.3% 0.8% $3,832 3.4
96 Madison, Wis. 6.3% 0.5% $4,251 3.3
95 Louisville, Ky. 6.4% 1.4% $2,918 3.7
94 Wichita, Kan. 6.4% 1.4% $3,246 3.4
93 Provo, Utah 6.4% 1.2% $3,238 3.7
92 Little Rock, Ark. 6.5% 1.8% $2,861 3.7
91 Grand Rapids, Mich. 6.8% 1.6% $3,306 3.9
* Mature loans are those that originated at least five years earlier.

7 strategies for paying off student loans faster

Stretching out repayment over 15 or 20 years can be helpful if you need to lower payments on your student loans. You could put federal loans on extended repayment or an income-driven repayment plan, for instance — each of which typically span 20 or 25 years. Or you could refinance federal or private student loans for terms of 15 years or longer.

But while stretching out repayment will save you money from month to month, it will also mean you’ll spend a lot more on interest. Plus, you might be eager to get student loans out of your life once and for all. If wiping out your debt ahead of schedule is a goal for you, then here are some strategies that could help.

  • Make extra payments. If you can find room in your budget, you can make extra payments at any time to prepay your loan without penalty. Just make sure your loan servicer is applying your extra payments the right way (i.e., to the principal rather than to interest).
  • Make biweekly payments. By switching to a biweekly schedule of “half payments,” you could end up making at least one extra payment each year without even trying.
  • Seek out student loan forgiveness or repayment assistance programs. If you can qualify for forgiveness or repayment assistance, you could get a huge chunk of your loans discharged. Even if you don’t qualify for most programs, you might be able to find an employer with a student loan-matching benefit.
  • Increase your income. Finding ways to increase your income, maybe by asking for a raise or switching jobs will help you conquer your debt faster. Side hustles can also be a good income booster.
  • Avoid lifestyle inflation. If you start making more money, be careful not to increase your spending, too. Otherwise, you’ll end up back where you started. Make moves to prevent lifestyle inflation, and if possible, find areas where you can save money.
  • Use a cash windfall. If you get a big bonus or inheritance, consider throwing it at your loans to pay off a big chunk all at once.
  • Refinance your student loans. If you can qualify, you might refinance for better interest rates and new terms. Lowering your interest rate could save you money on your loan and help you pay it off faster.

While you may want to get rid of your student loans ASAP, you also probably have other financial priorities, such as building an emergency fund and saving for retirement. Ultimately, it’s up to you to find the right balance between paying off student loans and achieving your other money goals.

But if you find student debt is dragging down your quality of life, get proactive about paying it off ahead of schedule so that you’re not stuck dealing with it for decades to come.