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Claim that 40% of Americans who take out student loans never graduate needs context

The claim is based on one study that looked at a small group of students, and there is no comprehensive data source that tracks student borrower graduation rates.

In late April, following President Joe Biden’s extension of the student loan payment pause and the renewed conversation about widespread debt forgiveness, vlogger and YouTube creator Hank Green tweeted that 40% of Americans who take out student loans do not graduate from college.

He’s not the first to make this claim. Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) both made the same claim last year.


Do 40% of Americans who take out student loans not graduate from college? 



This needs context.

This claim needs context. A Department of Education survey found that about 40% of student borrowers surveyed didn’t graduate, but the survey's sample size was small and only spanned a six-year period.


The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) routinely surveys cohorts of first-time, beginning students in what it calls the Beginning Postsecondary Students survey. The BPS surveys students at the end of their first year, and then again three years and six years after first entering college. NCES has completed four of these studies, the last of which was the Beginning Postsecondary Students 2012/2017 survey.

The 2012/2017 BPS found that of surveyed freshmen who started college in 2011 and took out loans for their college education between 2011 and 2017, 38.5% did not have a degree by June 2017.

Credit: VERIFY
Among 2011 freshmen who borrowed direct subsidized or unsubsidized loans between 2011 and 2017, 38.5% did not have a degree by June 2017.

That’s where the 40% figure comes from — but the survey has several limitations.

The survey is based on the responses from 22,500 students who were first enrolled in 2011-12 and responded again to the survey six years later. According to the NCES’s Digest of Education Statistics, total fall enrollment for first-time, degree-seeking or certificate-seeking students has hovered around 3 million since 2008. That means NCES surveyed fewer than 1% of 2011 freshmen.

The survey also didn’t continue beyond June 2017, which means it leaves out anyone who may have earned a degree more than six years after they first enrolled. The NCES says that just over 25% of bachelor’s degree recipients from 2015-16 took longer than six years from the date they first enrolled to get their degree.

According to Jill Barshay, an economist and education data reporter for the non-profit Hechinger Report, which reports on inequality and innovation in education, there’s a good reason why the data is so limited.

“There is no readily available data to say what percentage of student borrowers never graduate from college,” Barshay said. “We can only make estimates by triangulating several data sources that aren't comparing apples to apples.”

Barshay said a major issue with trying to measure this data is determining how long borrowers have to graduate school before they’re included among borrowers who never earned a degree. 

It’s much easier to measure this data, Barshay said, the way the Beginning Postsecondary Students survey did — by studying a single cohort of students. But she said studying a single cohort still wouldn’t give a researcher the full national picture and would only be a small slice of students.

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