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One chart that debunks the biggest myth about student loans

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.

If you read many news stories about student debt, you encounter a lot of people with loan balances well in excess of $50,000. If you read many policy briefs on student debt, you know those people are very rare.

Hamilton Place Strategies, a public relations firm, has a chart illustrating the discrepancy, looking at anecdotes from about 100 news stories on student debt in the past three months:


(Hamilton Place Strategies)

Reporting is about searching for compelling stories, and a student weighed down with $120,000 in loans is a much more alarming poster child for a debt-laden generation than the typical bachelor's degree graduate with just under $30,000.

But making outliers the face of growing student debt obscures other trends that are more common, and more troubling.

Student debt is getting more attention now in large part because it isn't an unusual experience anymore. Instead, it's a typical one. Seventy-one percent of graduates with bachelors' degrees now have student loans. At public universities, 66 percent do. More students are borrowing, and they're borrowing more than they used to. That's a big shift in how society thinks about who is responsible for paying for college. Six-figure student debt isn't a common problem. But that doesn't mean student debt is nothing to worry about.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the proportion of public university graduates with student debt. It is 66 percent.

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