Study: Does Going to College Make You Richer or Poorer?

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Student loan debt balances have grown more than 200% over the past decade, and increasing numbers of borrowers carry student loans into their 30s and 40s. What’s more, avoiding such debt isn’t easy, with far more college students taking out student loans (69%) than not (31%).

Given the financial burden on students today, Student Loan Hero wondered if college was still worth the sky-high costs that often go with it. Does a college degree lead to a higher net worth, or is it possible that — at least in the near term — not going to college could spell better financial health?

To answer this question, we examined recent Federal Reserve data on net worth, financial assets, and debt repayment to compare trends among college graduates, those with some college, and those with only a high school education.

Key findings

  • College graduates younger than 35 have a higher median net worth ($20,980) than high school graduates or those with some college education in the same age group, despite having significantly more debt.
  • Those with just a high school education have a higher net worth ($10,275) than those with some college education but no degree ($7,200).
  • Over the past two decades, however, the median net worth of under-35 college graduates and those with some college have fallen by about 47%. Those with only high school educations fell by a more modest percentage (nearly 10%) over the same period.
  • The median total debt level of under-35 college graduates has grown 57% since 1998, hitting $64,000 in 2016 up from $40,870 in 1998. Those with some college saw median debt levels grow by about 4.5%, to $19,180 from $18,369.

College graduates have higher net worth (despite the debt)


 

Net worth refers to the value of all your assets (including savings, investments and property), minus your liabilities (such as credit card debt or student loans). Since many college graduates take on a lot of debt for school, you might expect them to have lower net worth than their counterparts with no student loans.

But according to the results of our study, college degrees lead to greater net worth, despite the debt that often comes with them. We found that under-35 college graduates have a higher median net worth than high school graduates or those with some college education.

Specifically, the graduates in this group had a median net worth of $20,980, while high school graduates clocked a median net worth of $10,275, and those with some college education but no degree came in last, at $7,200. College degrees tend to lead to high-paying jobs, according to Labor Department data, which in turn could contribute to the higher net worth enjoyed by those with a degree.

But their net worth is lower than it’s been in decades


While a college degree appears to be an asset when it comes to building net worth, today’s graduates are lagging behind previous generations when it comes to wealth.

Specifically, the net worth of graduates under 35 is nearly $51,000 lower than the $71,943 median net worth of the same segment in 2001. In fact, over the past two decades, the median net worth of under-35 college graduates and some college educated households has fallen by 47%.

While those with a high school education or some college education have lower net worths than college graduates do, the decline hasn’t been so dramatic. For instance, the net worth of individuals with a high school education fell only 10% over the last 20 years.

Having student loans with no degree can hurt net worth


Although a college degree usually involves debt, it seems to pay off with a higher-income job and a stronger net worth. But the same cannot be said for individuals who attend some college but leave before earning their degree.

Those with some college education had a lower net worth ($7,200) than those who hadn’t attended college at all ($10,275). This difference might be due in no small part to student loan borrowing — racking up loans but lacking the prospect of a well-paying job to pay them off.

Leaving college without a degree may cause debt repayment problems


 

Not only did those who left college before graduating have the lowest rates of net worth, but they tended to show higher rates of delinquency on their debt. Looking at data between 1989 and 2016, this group tended to miss payments on their debt more frequently than the other two groups.

In 2016, for instance, 28% of those with some college education had missed a payment in the previous year, as compared to 20% of high school graduates and 10% of college graduates. Missing payments can lead to default, which in turn can damage credit, making it even harder to improve your financial health.

High school graduates have less debt but lower net worth


 

Although high school graduates tended to have a lower net worth than those who went to college, they also usually had better financial health when it came to debt. In 2016, the median debt for high school graduates was $9,900, while for college graduates, it was more than six times higher at $64,000.

This gap has grown over the past 20 years, with median total debt levels of under-35 college graduates growing 57% since 1998. Those with some college saw median debt levels grow by 4% to $19,180, and those with only high school educations actually had slightly lower median debt than they did two decades ago.

While total debt is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to financial health, owing less can make it easier to meet your savings goals.

Is college worth it? The data still says yes


With both the cost of college and the rate of student loan borrowing at all-time highs, it’s natural to question whether higher education is worth the costs.

According to the data, this financial investment does appear to have solid returns in the form of higher net worth and a stronger likelihood of keeping up with debt repayment.

At the same time, those who aren’t sure about college should proceed with caution, as leaving school before you earn your degree appears to cause even greater harm to your finances than not going to college in the first place. If this describes you, look into ways to manage your debt and boost your financial health.

This might involve going back to school to finish your degree or consolidating debt to simplify repayment. If your credit is subpar, look for strategies to improve it fast. And if you have student loans from your time at school, remember there are some banks that will approve you for student loan refinancing, even if you didn’t graduate.

Whatever steps you can take to get up to date with debt and increase your earnings will help you in both the short and long term, regardless of your education level.

Interested in refinancing student loans?

Here are the top 6 lenders of 2020!
LenderVariable APREligible Degrees 
1.89% – 6.66%1Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Splash

1.89% – 5.90%2Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Laurel Road

2.25% – 6.09%3Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit SoFi

1.99% – 5.34%4Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Earnest

1.97% – 8.54%5Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Lendkey

2.39% – 6.01%Undergrad
& Graduate

Visit Elfi

Check out the testimonials and our in-depth reviews!
1 Important Disclosures for Splash Financial.

Splash Financial Disclosures

Terms and Conditions apply. Splash reserves the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. Rates and terms are also subject to change at any time without notice. Offers are subject to credit approval. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident in an eligible state and meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers. If approved, your actual rate will be within a range of rates and will depend on a variety of factors, including term of loan, a responsible financial history, income and other factors. Refinancing or consolidating private and federal student loans may not be the right decision for everyone. Federal loans carry special benefits not available for loans made through Splash Financial, for example, public service loan forgiveness and economic hardship programs, fee waivers and rebates on the principal, which may not be accessible to you after you refinance. The rates displayed may include a 0.25% autopay discount.

The information you provide to us is an inquiry to determine whether we or our lenders can make a loan offer that meets your needs. If we or any of our lending partners has an available loan offer for you, you will be invited to submit a loan application to the lender for its review. We do not guarantee that you will receive any loan offers or that your loan application will be approved. Offers are subject to credit approval and are available only to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who meet applicable underwriting requirements. Not all borrowers will receive the lowest rates, which are available to the most qualified borrowers. Participating lenders, rates and terms are subject to change at any time without notice.

To check the rates and terms you qualify for, Splash Financial conducts a soft credit pull that will not affect your credit score. However, if you choose a product and continue your application, the lender will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit pull and may affect your credit.

Splash Financial and our lending partners reserve the right to modify or discontinue products and benefits at any time without notice. To qualify, a borrower must be a U.S. citizen and meet our lending partner’s underwriting requirements. Lowest rates are reserved for the highest qualified borrowers. This information is current as of October 1, 2020.


2 Important Disclosures for Laurel Road.

Laurel Road Disclosures

All credit products are subject to credit approval.

Laurel Road began originating student loans in 2013 and has since helped thousands of professionals with undergraduate and postgraduate degrees consolidate and refinance more than $4 billion in federal and private school loans. Laurel Road also offers a suite of online graduate school loan products and personal loans that help simplify lending through customized technology and personalized service. In April 2019, Laurel Road was acquired by KeyBank, one of the nation’s largest bank-based financial services companies. Laurel Road is a brand of KeyBank National Association offering online lending products in all 50 U.S. states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. All loans are provided by KeyBank National Association, a nationally chartered bank. Member FDIC. For more information, visit www.laurelroad.com.

As used throughout these Terms & Conditions, the term “Lender” refers to KeyBank National Association and its affiliates, agents, guaranty insurers, investors, assigns, and successors in interest.

  1. Checking your rate with Laurel Road only requires a soft credit pull, which will not affect your credit score. To proceed with an application, a hard credit pull will be required, which may affect your credit score.
  2. Savings vary based on rate and term of your existing and refinanced loan(s). Refinancing to a longer term may lower your monthly payments, but may also increase the total interest paid over the life of the loan. Refinancing to a shorter term may increase your monthly payments, but may lower the total interest paid over the life of the loan. Review your loan documentation for total cost of your refinanced loan.
  3. After loan disbursement, if a borrower documents a qualifying economic hardship, we may agree in our discretion to allow for full or partial forbearance of payments for one or more 3-month time periods (not to exceed 12 months in the aggregate during the term of your loan), provided that we receive acceptable documentation (including updating documentation) of the nature and expected duration of the borrower’s economic hardship. During any period of forbearance interest will continue to accrue. At the end of the forbearance period, any unpaid accrued interest will be capitalized and be added to the remaining principle amount of the loan.
  4. Automatic Payment (“AutoPay”) Discount: if the borrower chooses to make monthly payments automatically from a bank account, the interest rate will decrease by 0.25% and will increase back if the borrower stops making (or we stop accepting) monthly payments automatically from the borrower’s bank account. The 0.25% AutoPay discount will not reduce the monthly payment; instead, the discount is applied to the principal to help pay the loan down faster.

Assumptions: Repayment examples above assume a loan amount of $10,000 with repayment beginning immediately following disbursement. Repayment examples do not include the 0.25% AutoPay Discount.

Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): This term represents the actual cost of financing to the borrower over the life of the loan expressed as a yearly rate.

Interest Rate: A simple annual rate that is applied to an unpaid balance.

Variable Rates: The current index for variable rate loans is derived from the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) and changes in the LIBOR index may cause your monthly payment to increase. Borrowers who take out a term of 5, 7, or 10 years will have a maximum interest rate of 9%, those who take out a 15 or 20-year variable loan will have a maximum interest rate of 10%.

KEYBANK NATIONAL ASSOCIATION RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE.

This information is current as of December 1, 2020. Information and rates are subject to change without notice.
 


3 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

SoFi Disclosures

  1. Student loan Refinance: Fixed rates from 2.99% APR to 6.09% APR (with AutoPay). Variable rates from 2.25% APR to 6.09% APR (with AutoPay). Interest rates on variable rate loans are capped at either 8.95% or 9.95% depending on term of loan. See APR examples and terms. Lowest variable rate of 2.25% APR assumes current 1 month LIBOR rate of 0.18% plus 2.32% margin minus 0.25% ACH discount. Not all borrowers receive the lowest rate. If approved for a loan, the fixed or variable interest rate offered will depend on your creditworthiness, and the term of the loan and other factors, and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. For the SoFi variable rate loan, the 1-month LIBOR index will adjust monthly and the loan payment will be re-amortized and may change monthly. APRs for variable rate loans may increase after origination if the LIBOR index increases. See eligibility details. The SoFi 0.25% AutoPay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. *To check the rates and terms you qualify for, SoFi conducts a soft credit inquiry. Unlike hard credit inquiries, soft credit inquiries (or soft credit pulls) do not impact your credit score. Soft credit inquiries allow SoFi to show you what rates and terms SoFi can offer you up front. After seeing your rates, if you choose a product and continue your application, we will request your full credit report from one or more consumer reporting agencies, which is considered a hard credit inquiry. Hard credit inquiries (or hard credit pulls) are required for SoFi to be able to issue you a loan. In addition to requiring your explicit permission, these credit pulls may impact your credit score. Terms and Conditions Apply. SOFI RESERVES THE RIGHT TO MODIFY OR DISCONTINUE PRODUCTS AND BENEFITS AT ANY TIME WITHOUT NOTICE. 

4 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

To qualify, you must be a U.S. citizen or possess a 10-year (non-conditional) Permanent Resident Card, reside in a state Earnest lends in, and satisfy our minimum eligibility criteria. You may find more information on loan eligibility here: https://www.earnest.com/eligibility. Not all applicants will be approved for a loan, and not all applicants will qualify for the lowest rate. Approval and interest rate depend on the review of a complete application.

Earnest fixed rate loan rates range from 2.98% APR (with Auto Pay) to 5.49% APR (with Auto Pay). Variable rate loan rates range from 1.99% APR (with Auto Pay) to 5.34% APR (with Auto Pay). For variable rate loans, although the interest rate will vary after you are approved, the interest rate will never exceed 8.95% for loan terms 10 years or less. For loan terms of 10 years to 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 9.95%. For loan terms over 15 years, the interest rate will never exceed 11.95% (the maximum rates for these loans). Earnest variable interest rate loans are based on a publicly available index, the one month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR). Your rate will be calculated each month by adding a margin between 1.82% and 5.50% to the one month LIBOR. The rate will not increase more than once per month. Earnest rate ranges are current as of October 26, 2020, and are subject to change based on market conditions and borrower eligibility.

Auto Pay discount: If you make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic, monthly deduction from a savings or checking account, your rate will be reduced by one quarter of one percent (0.25%) for so long as you continue to make automatic, electronic monthly payments. This benefit is suspended during periods of deferment and forbearance.

The information provided on this page is updated as of 10/26/2020. Earnest reserves the right to change, pause, or terminate product offerings at any time without notice. Earnest loans are originated by Earnest Operations LLC. California Finance Lender License 6054788. NMLS # 1204917. Earnest Operations LLC is located at 302 2nd Street, Suite 401N, San Francisco, CA 94107. Terms and Conditions apply. Visit https://www.earnest.com/terms-of-service, email us at [email protected], or call 888-601-2801 for more information on our student loan refinance product.

© 2020 Earnest LLC. All rights reserved. Earnest LLC and its subsidiaries, including Earnest Operations LLC, are not sponsored by or agencies of the United States of America.


5 Important Disclosures for LendKey.

LendKey Disclosures

Refinancing via LendKey.com is only available for applicants with qualified private education loans from an eligible institution. Loans that were used for exam preparation classes, including, but not limited to, loans for LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, and GRE preparation, are not eligible for refinancing with a lender via LendKey.com. If you currently have any of these exam preparation loans, you should not include them in an application to refinance your student loans on this website. Applicants must be either U.S. citizens or Permanent Residents in an eligible state to qualify for a loan. Certain membership requirements (including the opening of a share account and any applicable association fees in connection with membership) may apply in the event that an applicant wishes to accept a loan offer from a credit union lender. Lenders participating on LendKey.com reserve the right to modify or discontinue the products, terms, and benefits offered on this website at any time without notice. LendKey Technologies, Inc. is not affiliated with, nor does it  endorse,  any educational institution.

Subject to floor rate and may require the automatic payments be made from a checking or savings account with the lender. The rate reduction will be removed and the rate will be increased by 0.25% upon any cancellation or failed collection attempt of the automatic payment and will be suspended during any period of deferment or forbearance. As a result, during the forbearance or suspension period, and/or if the automatic payment is canceled, any increase will take the form of higher payments. The lowest advertised variable APR is only available for loan terms of  5 years and is reserved for applicants with FICO scores of at least 810.

As of 11/13/2020 student loan refinancing rates range from 1.97% to 8.54% Variable APR with AutoPay and 2.95% to 8.77% Fixed APR with AutoPay.