American borrowers collectively owe over $1.7 trillion in student loan debt in what many consider a national crisis. Although this issue is typically associated with younger individuals  — that’s not entirely true. Student loan debt spans across multiple generations.

That said, each age group experiences the effects of student loan debt differently.

Student loan debt statistics

According to a recent study by TransUnion the average student loan borrower has an outstanding balance of roughly $35,000. Although a smaller percentage of Gen Xers have student loan debt, they tend to carry higher balances than Millennials and Gen Zers.

Generation Share of consumers with student loan debt Average outstanding balance per consumer
Gen Z 28% $24,473
Millennials 43% $42,637
Gen X 21% $48,733

Source: TransUnion

Most consumers have federal student loans rather than private ones. According to TransUnion’s data, 89 percent of borrowers have federal student loans. Meanwhile, 10 percent have a mix of both private and federal student debt, and only 1 percent have private loans exclusively.

Student loan debt for millennials

Millennials shoulder a large portion of the nation’s debt and are most likely to report that student loan debt is a problem for young borrowers. Here’s how student debt is currently affecting millennials.

  • As of 2023, the average millennial borrower has an outstanding student loan balance of over 42,600.
  • Millennials account for almost half (47%) of the nation’s outstanding student loan debt.
  • Most millennials (53%) are expected to pay between $1 and $199 a month in federal student loans once payments resume in October.
  • Over 79% of millennials report that student debt is a problem for young people in the United States.

Student loan debt relief for millennials

Millennials with outstanding debt have many debt relief options, especially those with federal student loan debt.

  • General forbearance: The current administrative forbearance, set to end in October, is granted automatically to all federal borrowers. However, the Education Department also offers a general forbearance for up to 12 months if you face financial hardship. Private lenders may also offer hardship forbearance for those who qualify, but the details and time length will vary from lender to lender.
  • Refinancing: Refinancing involves taking out a new private loan to pay off your existing loan debt with a lower interest rate. However, refinancing will eliminate every federal relief option, so consider all other options first. If you can score a lower rate, it’s worth considering after the forbearance period ends.
  • Repayment plans: Multiple repayment options are available to federal borrowers, like graduated repayment — that extend your repayment timeline to provide some monthly relief. Private lenders may offer similar plans, so check with your lender to see what’s available.

Student loan debt for Gen Z

Born between the mid-1990s and mid-2010s, Gen Z is the generation that could likely feel the financial weight of student loan debt the heaviest when compared to the preceding generations.

Due to the widespread necessity for a postsecondary degree and the rise in tuition costs for higher education, Gen Zers, compared to older millennials, will be more likely to hold debt and tend to have higher balances upon graduation.

  • As of 2023, the average Gen Z borrower has an outstanding student loan balance of $24,473.
  • 66.7% of older Gen Zers had $20,000 or less in student debt in 2022.
  • The largest percentage (28%) of college students aged 24 and younger have between $5,000 and $9,999 in Federal Direct Loans as of March 31, 2022.
  • 6.8 million of federal student loan borrowers are 24 years old or younger.

Student loan debt relief for Gen Z

While the benefits apply to every current borrower — despite their age group — Gen Z is set to reap the benefits of improved relief benefits and alternative repayment options more so than the previous generation.

  • Income-driven repayment (IDR): An IDR plan is a federal payment plan that sets your monthly payment based on your income and family size. The remaining balance is forgiven after 20 to 25 years of qualifying payments. The monthly payments on an IDR plan are often much smaller than the original payments on the standard plan.
  • Pay As You Earn (PAYE): PAYE and the Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE) are federal IDR plans that set your monthly payment at 10 percent of your discretionary income. After 20 to 25 years of payments, your balance is forgiven. Which one you qualify for depends on your level of hardship. Generally, PAYE is better for married borrowers, and REPAYE suits single borrowers better.
  • Saving on a Valuable Education plan (SAVE): dubbed as the “most affordable student loan plan,” SAVE is another type of IDR that borrowers can apply to. This plan, however, is best suited for individual borrowers earning $32,800 or less or a family of four with a household income of $67,500 or less.
  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF): PSLF is an occupation-based federal forgiveness plan. It forgives the remaining federal student loan debt after an eligible public servant makes qualifying payments for 10 years.

Student loan debt for Gen X

While Gen X may not have taken out as much student debt as millennials and Gen Zer’s have had to, Gen X is the generation shouldering some of the highest balances per borrower.

  • As of 2023, the average Gen Xer has $48,733 in student loan debt.
  • Gen Xers account for 26% of the nation’s outstanding student loan debt.
  • 29% of Gen Xers are expected to pay $500 or more a month in federal student loans once payments resume in October.
  • Borrowers within this age range had the highest reported delinquent student loan payments across all generations, owing a collective $15.5 billion.

Student loan debt relief for Gen X

For those who have been trapped in an endless cycle of high-interest debt, there are payment relief methods that can help you make progress on paying down your student loans.

  • Consolidation: Student loan consolidation only applies to federal debt and is similar to refinancing in that you take out a new Direct Loan to pay off existing federal debt. Consolidating can make your balances easier to manage and can save money in interest. For those with private and federal loans, refinancing may be worth it after the federal forbearance period if you’re offered a lower rate.
  • Deferment and forbearance: Financial hardship-based general deferment and forbearance are short-term options that can help federal borrowers get back on their feet for several months. Deferment allows borrowers to stall their payments free of interest accrual, while forbearance requires that borrowers pay interest during the period. Private lenders may offer similar relief programs and the details will vary from lender to lender.
  • Student loan discharge: The Education Department — and several private lenders — offer loan forgiveness should you meet the specific program criteria. Becoming totally and permanently disabled, school fraud or closure and, in rare cases, bankruptcy are a few situations that qualify for discharge.

Student debt forgiveness

President Biden’s student debt relief plan would have forgiven up to $20,000 for qualifying federal borrowers; however, this plan was struck down by the Supreme Court on June 30, 2023.

Although mass student loan forgiveness is off the table for now, borrowers still have options to make their payments more affordable — and even get a portion of their balances forgiven. That said, borrowers will need to be proactive in exploring the options available to reap these benefits.

As of now, repayment for federal student loans is set to resume in October 2023. Meanwhile, interest started accruing again on September 1, 2023.

The bottom line

Student debt impacts each generation differently. While Gen Xers carry the second-highest balance per borrower, millennials shoulder close to half of the nation’s outstanding student loan balance.

Considering that many Gen Zers haven’t started or have yet to finish their college education, Gen Zers will be more likely to feel the weight of their student debt more heavily compared to other generations as college tuition and cost of living continue to increase.