Federal Student Debt in Wisconsin

With student debt beginning to receive serious attention in Wisconsin, basic information about “who borrows” and “how much” is critical to diagnosing and ultimately solving student debt problems. Accordingly, this post uses data from the United States Department of Education (ED)’s Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA) to provide key information on federal student loans in Wisconsin.

FSA’s data include all federal loan borrowers with outstanding balances regardless of where they attended college, whether they graduated, or how long they have been in repayment. These data also measure the combined total principal and interest still owed and cannot be disaggregated by principal or interest. We find approximately 715,800 Wisconsin residents have federal student loan debt, accounting for about 23 percent of the state’s 3.1 million labor force participants. These borrowers owe a combined $23.1 billion in federal education loans, resulting in an average balance of $32,230, as shown below:

Debt in Wisconsin is relatively low compared to other states – ranking 45th in average debt per borrower across all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, as shown below. Indeed, with the exception of Iowa, Wisconsin also has lower aggregate and per-borrower debt levels and fewer borrowers than any of its neighboring states. The following tool allows users to explore quarterly trends (nominal, not inflation-adjusted) in average debt for Wisconsin and other states.

When interpreting these data, there are several limitations and considerations to keep in mind. First, FSA’s data is based on location information reported by student loan servicers, and some less-common types of federal loans do not track location information, meaning that those borrowers are not included here. Second, any private, institutional or state loans held by Wisconsin residents are not reflected in these totals. This means that the debt figures listed here are in some ways a lower bound estimate of the true student loan burden. Third, these data do not account for how long borrowers have been in repayment, where the borrower went to college, or what type of degree they earned (if any at all).

Future posts will dig into these issues and more. In this first post, our goal was to simply measure the number of borrowers and amount outstanding in the state to put Wisconsin into national and regional context. Subsequent posts will explore these statewide statistics in more detail and will examine differences in debt by individual colleges, metro regions, and counties.