Joe Biden

Majority of Borrowers Say Taking on Federal Student Loan Debt Is Not Worth It, CNBC Survey Finds

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Nearly one-third of undergraduates borrow money from the federal government to pay for college. That's about 43 million Americans who owe a staggering total of nearly $1.6 trillion in outstanding student loans.

A new survey found that 54% of federal student loan borrowers said taking on that debt was not worth it. Overall, however, 44% said taking on that debt was worth it, according to the CNBC + Acorns Invest In You Student Loan Survey, done in partnership with Momentive. (The online poll was conducted Jan. 10-13 among a national sample of 5,162 adults.)

Yet, many millennials and Gen Xers are far more skeptical. Some 63% of respondents ages 35 to 44 said, considering their current situation, it was not worth it to take out federal student loans. 

The average loan amount for federal student loan borrowers is $36,510.

Kate Bernyk, 39, finished graduate school nearly 15 years ago with two communications degrees and about $100,000 in student debt.

"I used to be really proud that I had a master's degree, but now it feels a little bit foolish," said Bernyk, a New York-based senior communications specialist. "It feels like maybe I shouldn't have gone because it's really hard to put a price on what  the advantage has been versus the disadvantage of getting into debt."

She still owes more than $30,000 in student loans. 

A bachelor's degree holder earns a median of $2.8 million during their career — 75% more than if they had only a high school diploma — although when broken down by gender, women with a BA have median lifetime earnings of $2.4 million, compared to $3.3 million for men.

Kate Bernyk, 39, finished graduate school with two communications degrees and about $100,000 in student debt.
CNBC | Andy Tenke
Kate Bernyk, 39, finished graduate school with two communications degrees and about $100,000 in student debt.

Loan repayment pause ending

Borrowers got a reprieve from federal loan payments when the Covid-19 pandemic hit in March 2020. That relief has since been extended five times and is now set to end in May. The payment pause has given many borrowers more money to use for everyday expenses (48%) and pay other debts (35%), the survey found.

Yet, when federal loan repayments resume, one-third or more of the borrowers surveyed said they'll have to delay other financial goals, such as paying off other debts (42%), investing money (40%), saving for retirement (38%) or buying a home (33%). 

Source: CNBC + Acorns Invest In You Student Loan Survey, conducted by Momentive

"It's like a mortgage without the house at the end of it," Bernyk said.

The potential drag on the economy is one reason supporters of student loan forgiveness, like economist Kristen Broady, are pushing for more.

"If people don't have to pay back that money," said Broady, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, "that's more money that they can spend on durable and non-durable goods or services. That money goes directly into the economy."

More from Invest in You:
Most Americans want Biden to prioritize student loan forgiveness, survey says
Student loan holders are more likely to be women and people of color
81% of adults with student loans say they've had to delay key life milestones

A majority, or 57% in the survey, said they believe President Joe Biden should make student loan forgiveness a priority, but views are mixed on how to do it. 

About a third of respondents said all student debt should be forgiven, nearly the same amount said forgive loans for only those in need and about one in four said there should be no forgiveness.

Biden campaigned on a proposal to forgive $10,000 in student debt. Some Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., are calling on the President to cancel student debt up to $50,000.

However, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the top Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee, said blanket loan forgiveness would be a "massive mistake" -- and the extension of the student loan pause has already cost taxpayers over $150 billion.

Overwhelming to think about

Denisse Quintanilla, a CNBC intern and first generation college student, plans to graduate in May. She is unsure what the terms of her loan will be once she will have to begin making payments.

"It's still overwhelming to think about how much I should be paying each month in order to not be into my 30s or early 40s and still have my student loan debt," Quintanilla said.

While students may receive counseling when they first borrow the money, financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz says it often falls short.

"Every dollar they borrow is going to cost them two dollars by the time they repay the debt, and they don't really think about that," he said. 

Bernyk, who held jobs at non-profits and in government for over 10 years, has had a great deal of time to think about and try to tackle her student debt burden. She may have found a solution to get to the finish line. 

Last fall, the Biden administration eased requirements to qualify for public service loan forgiveness. Bernyk said she's been working with her loan servicer to qualify under this federal program to have her remaining loan balance wiped clean. The new rules are in effect until Oct. 31, 2022.

LISTEN NOW: Should student loan debt be forgiven? What are the hidden costs of college? Should financial education start at an earlier age? CNBC reporters and contributors discussed these topics and more on Twitter spaces.

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Disclosure: NBCUniversal and Comcast Ventures are investors in Acorns.

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