Mapping The Staggering, Sorry State Of U.S. Student Debt

Soaring student debt levels are sapping an entire generation of their future security. But some have it worse than others.

The rate of student debt has quadrupled over the last 12 years and, at $1.3 trillion, now exceeds every other form of consumer debt aside from mortgages. Today’s students and graduates have huge liabilities as they start their careers, which we must remember is a burden that previous generations barely had.


The maps here plot that debt by ZIP code. You can see which cities, regions and states have the greatest amounts and also which areas have the greatest rates of default. They’re based on data from credit scorer Experian and the American Community Survey and were created by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, Generation Progress, and Higher Ed, Not Debt.

Aside from the staggering overall level of debt, the maps reveal a key point about the crisis: It’s affecting some groups more than others. Among people who left school in 2011, for-profit or community colleges (including several like Corinthian Colleges that have now thankfully gone out of business) accounted for the greatest rate of defaults, at 21%. Four-year colleges had an 8% rate. And graduate schools had a 2% rate. The highest rates of defaults are among people who signed up for two-year degrees but didn’t complete their courses.

The maps show that people are most likely to fall behind on their payments when they come from poorer neighborhoods, and–counterintuitively–that people with higher rates of debt are less likely to default. Households with income of $100,000 a year are four times less likely to default than people on $20,000, even though the first group’s debts are relatively much larger. That indicates that a good college degree is very much still worth having–you can pay back your debts–but that having a lot of debt from a bad college is a millstone around your neck.

Of course, the fact that someone doesn’t default doesn’t necessarily mean they’re sitting pretty. Even if people have jobs and are paying their debts, they could be eating badly every night. Certainly, student debt is a big concern for the a large portion of the millennial generation. A recent survey commissioned by Peanut Butter, a benefits administration company, showed that millennials are keen for employers to help them pay down what they owe. Many, indeed, would prefer debt repayment to other perks, including 401(k) and health insurance contributions and free gym memberships, the survey found.

See more of the maps here.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.