Achieving Success in Postsecondary Education: The Facts About Student Debt

June 2017

The story of a generation drowning in debt is misleading for a number of reasons. This report looks at the landscape of student debt in the U.S. as well as trends and innovative approaches in private funding of higher education.


This paper reviews data about student borrowing, as well as the variation in debt levels associated with students with different characteristics and different educational histories. This information, along with evidence about the factors associated with repayment difficulties, points to policy solutions such as efforts to diminish problematic borrowing and an improved income-driven repayment system.

This work was discussed during a convening co-hosted by the TIAA Institute and Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors: Postsecondary Success, Debt, and Philanthropy’s Role.

Key Insights
There is a positive impact of postsecondary education on employment and earnings.
Relatively high-earning households carry a disproportionate amount of student debt.
A significant share of the difficulties related to student loan repayment arises from failure to complete degrees and from poor labor market outcomes for some types of degrees/credentials.
A system that both prepares and protects people seeking to pursue higher education should be high on the policy agenda.

To understand student debt, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors reviewed existing research and data about student borrowing in the United States and characteristics of borrowers.