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The most important fact about student debt, explained in 2 maps

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The student debt problem in the US is really two problems. The first is that a college degree is more expensive than it used to be, and students are graduating with higher debt loads than ever. The second is that some students are struggling to pay back their debt.

But those problems don't affect the same people. This is obvious in a new, detailed set of interactive maps from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, based on data from Experian, showing student loan balances, median incomes, and delinquency by zip code.

When you look at individual states or metropolitan areas, you see that the zip codes with high average loan balances aren't the same as those where delinquency is high. In fact, they're almost reversed. Here are the loan balances around Washington, DC, where a darker color indicates a higher balance:

Map of debt loads around Washington
Loan balances near Washington, DC. Darker colors indicate a higher loan balance.
Mapping Student Debt

And here are the delinquencies. A darker shade indicates more people are delinquent:

Map of loan delinquencies in DC metro area
Loan delinquencies near Washington, DC.
Mapping Student Debt

The highest loan balances are in some of the city's wealthiest areas — its northwest side and suburbs, home to doctors, lawyers, and government officials. The poorer southeast quadrant and the zip codes of southeast Maryland don't have the high loan balances that come with residents with graduate degrees. But the ones who have loans in those areas really are struggling.

The same pattern of high balances not matching high delinquency rates shows up in other states and cities across the country.

This contradiction, that the people who borrow the most in student loans often end up doing fine, makes it hard to create a sensible student loan policy. Many people think of the student loan problem as all about balances. But it's really about the hidden, struggling borrowers, whose inability to pay back their loans can follow them for life.

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