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State of Student Debt in America

Adam Carroll

Personal Finance Expert and Author

Adam Carroll is an internationally recognized financial literacy expert and author of Winning The Money Game, 30 Days To $1K, and The Money Savvy Student.  He is a two-time TED talk speaker, with one of his talks surpassing a million views in the first year online. He is the creator of the Broke, Busted & Disgusted documentary which has been played in hundreds of high schools and colleges, and is featured on CNBC and available on iTunes. He is the founder and curator of, and a contributor to the Huffington Post. Adam has presented at over 700 college and university campuses, hundreds of leadership symposiums, and countless local and regional events. His  passion is helping people build a bigger life, not a bigger lifestyle, through the Mastery Of Money.

Susan Farrell

Vice President, Community Markets

As the Vice President of Community Markets for Thrivent Student Loan Resources, Susan Farrell provides leadership for educational efforts such as the “Paying for College without Sacrificing Your Retirement” webinars. She also conducts webinars and workshops on ways to reduce student debt. She works with churches and other community groups to educate students and parents about planning for college, paying for college, and preparing for life after graduation. Her experience includes process design, operations, financial management, church lending, information technology, and teaching third graders. She is also a member of the education finance target market – being the mother of two college-age children. Farrell joined the Thrivent team in 2014. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in business management from Hamline University and Master of Science in teaching from the College of Saint Scholastica.

Thrivent Student Loan Resources 2017 State of Student Debt in America Report was conducted by Wakefield Research among 1,000 students – with quotas set for 500 rising college freshmen and 500 college students, sophomores or higher – and among 500 parents of current college students or rising college freshmen between July 31 and August 9, 2017, using an email invitation and an online survey. Rising college freshman are identified as those who will have their first day if class during the 2017/2018 academic year.

Results of any sample are subject to sampling variation. The magnitude of the variation is measurable and is affected by the number of interviews and the level of the percentages expressing the results. For the interviews conducted in this particular study, the chances are 95 in 100 that a survey result does not vary, plus or minus, by more than 3.1 percentage points for the student sample and 4.4 percentage points for the parents sample from the result that would be obtained if interviews had been conducted with all persons in the universe represented by the sample.

2017 State of Student Debt in America:
Student and Parent Perspective

Thrivent Student Loan Resources 2017 State of Student Debt in America Report takes a look at how both parents and college students approach student debt and financing higher education. The results reveal that contrary to the popular belief, students are not as entitled and dependent on their families as many, including their parents, might think. In fact, most believe much, if not most, of the responsibility to pay for college falls on them personally. The survey also found that while they feel confident in their ability to successfully navigate college financial requirements, students – and parents – are not as prepared as they should be to manage the significant cost of college.

The 2017 State of Student Debt in America Report analyzes the opinions of 1,000 students, with quotas set for 500 rising (newly enrolled) college freshmen and 500 college students, sophomores or higher, and 500 parents of current college students or rising college freshmen.

Overall Key Findings Summary Report PDF  

Complete Research Findings Report PDF  

Key Findings – Students


While young people are often stereotyped as entitled, most incoming and current college students expect to accept the burden of paying for college as their own. This seems to suggest that for many students, understanding how to manage college costs is a necessary stepping stone to taking on the financial responsibilities of adulthood.

  • The majority of incoming college freshman and current college students at the sophomore level or higher (51%) agree they should be the ones paying for most of their college education.

  • Most (58%) students plan to rely on their parents or family to help fund at least some of their college education. Other ways students will fund their education include: personal savings or work income (66%), scholarships and grants that don’t have to be paid back (63%) and student loans (54%).
  • 78% of students believe they should have jobs during college to help cover the costs. They feel they should work, on average, 19 hours a week.
  • More than 1 in 3 students (34%) ranked total cost, such as tuition and room and board, as the most important decider when choosing a college. Other top factors influencing their decision were the college’s reputation in their field of study (28%) and the college’s location (17%).
  • On average, students believe parents should give them $132 a month for personal spending while they’re in college.
  • 83% of students felt they should apply for scholarships before beginning their freshman year of college. Yet, only 32% felt students should apply for scholarships during their senior year, 39% during junior year, 41% during sophomore year and 44% during freshman year. 
  • More than a quarter (26%) of students who expect to rely, or are currently relying, on their parents or family to pay for college, think their family didn’t save for their education.
  • A fourth (25%) of students would rather incur more debt by going to their dream college than save by going to a more practical school.
  • The majority of students (63%) believe their quality of life in college should be the same as it was before college.
  • Among students who expect to rely on, or are currently relying on, student loans to fund their college education, 37% of incoming freshman expect to take out loans for part of their full college budget, while 51% of sophomores or higher expect to take out loans for their budgeted costs.

Confidence & Preparation

Paying for college is a heavy responsibility for both high school seniors preparing to start college and current college students figuring out how to pay for their remaining years. While seemingly self-assured in continuing their education, data suggests students are actually over-stressed and under-educated about what it truly takes to tackle the financial demands of college. 

  • 62% of rising college freshman and current college students, sophomores or higher, in the U.S. feel confident they are fully prepared on how to manage the cost of college.
  • Of those who rely on or expect to rely on student loans, fewer than 1 in 4 (23%) students have read more than 75% of their student loan documents.
  • 1 in 3 (33%) students admit they’re more informed about their favorite celebrity than college costs.
  • Nearly 3 in 5 (57%) students who don’t plan to rely on scholarships or grants feel/admit they are more stressed about paying for college than their families.
  • The majority of students (70%) wish their families spoke with them about college costs more often.
  • 1 in 10 students (10%) would rather talk about “the birds and the bees” with their parents than discuss managing the cost of college.
  • 1 in 5 students (21%) relying on or planning to rely on student loans admit they haven’t established a budget for college costs.

Key Findings – Parents


Covering the substantial costs of a college education is no small feat. And while both students and their parents agree that students should work while in school, parents believe they should take on greater responsibility than students expect.

  • 70% of parents believe students should have jobs during college to help cover the costs. And, much like their children, parents believe students should work an average of 19 hours a week while in school to help pay for their education.
  • Parents believe, on average, they should provide a monthly stipend of $215 to their students, $80 more than the students think they should be receiving.
  • Nearly 1 in 3 parents (30%) didn’t save anything for their child’s college education, and 34% only started saving 5 or fewer years before their child started school.
  • 87% of parents agree they’re willing to put their child’s education ahead of their own long-term financial strategies and commitments.
  • 42% of parents will have to take out loans for their budgeted college costs for their child.

Confidence & Preparation

While more realistic and prepared than the students, many parents also remain largely unaware and unprepared for the financial realities of higher education.

  • Only half of parents (50%) who plan to take out student loans report having read more than 75% of their child’s student loan documents.
  • 36% of parents believe their children are better educated on their favorite celebrity than college costs.
  • Parents and their children seem disconnected on how burdened the other is feeling about college costs. 51% of parents feel they’re more stressed about paying for college than their children, while 57% of students who don’t plan to rely on scholarships or grants say the same.
  • 80% of parents feel it’s their or other family members’ job to teach kids about managing the cost of college, compared to only 51% of students who feel this way.
  • 1 in 4 parents (25%) admit they haven’t established a budget for college costs.

 Below are resources associated with the 2017 State of Student Debt available for download. 

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