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Before you grade Clinton’s and Trump’s plans to address student debt, look at the data on student borrowing

Fred Dews

Editor’s note: The data in the video are under review.

In 1983, 14 percent of U.S. households had some student debt. By 2013, that number was up to 38 percent. All together, the total amount of student debt in America today is $1.3 trillion.

Crippling student debt is something we read a lot about—and that many voters are eager to see the next president address. Hillary Clinton’s plan to combat student debt includes free tuition at public universities, the ability for students to refinance student loans, and more. Donald Trump has suggested he’s opposed to government involvement in student loans, and would instead see private banks offer more loans to students.

But before we can develop the best policy solutions, we need to focus on the details. What burden is being faced by the “typical” borrower—and has that changed over time? Who’s taking on the most student debt—and how much of it? By answering these questions, policymakers can identify who needs the most help, and how to deliver it.

That’s one reason Beth Akers, Brookings fellow and co-author of the forthcoming book “Game of Loans: The Rhetoric and Reality of Student Debt,” performed her initial analysis of student debt in America, “The typical household with student debt.”

To see what the analysis revealed, watch the video:

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Akers’ findings surprised a lot of Americans reading about the problem of exorbitant student debt. Despite the popular narrative that huge numbers of Americans are being crushed by extreme amounts of student debt, her findings revealed that the “unfortunate cases of households saddled with astronomical debts are rare.”

Akers and her co-author Matthew Chingos of the Urban Institute updated her original report in 2014 using data on student debt through 2013 (data from this most recent analysis is what’s cited in the video above).

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They find that, in 2013, only about 7 percent of households had student loan debt of above $50,000. Moreover, roughly one-quarter of the increase in student debt between 1989 and 2010 can be directly attributed to increases in educational attainment, especially at the graduate level. That is: Some Americans have more debt, but they also have more education and a greater ability to pay it off.

Importantly, Akers and Chingos write that “just because higher education is still a good investment for most students does not mean that high and rising college costs should be left unquestioned.”

But rising college costs are a different problem than a greater share of borrowers being crippled by debt they can’t repay—and they require different solutions. When comparing presidential candidates’ proposals for solving America’s problems, details matter.

To learn more about what Brooking experts are saying about the biggest issues in the 2016 presidential election, visit Brookings’s collection of election analysis and commentary.

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