Think Millennials Took On the Most College Debt? Survey Says You’re Wrong

Statement for a Student Loan on a desktop.
KLH49 / Getty Images

College debt seems to be in the news constantly these days, and with good reason. Student debt levels have exploded, creating a burden that was largely not felt by Baby Boomers and older generations. Millennials get a lot of coverage saying they are financially irresponsible and carry large amounts of debt, but are they really the ones driving debt in America?

Read: Two-Thirds of Older Millennials Are Still Paying Off Student Debt After 10 Years
Also: 1 Out of 5 Millennials Believe They Will Never Retire

To get a clear picture of the state of student debt in the nation, GOBankingRates commissioned a survey on student debt levels and other debts. Perhaps one of the most surprising findings was that Generation X, not Millennials, seems to have both the highest percentage of individuals in debt and the highest total amount of debt.

Digging deeper into the data, it’s clear that there are societal changes that may be contributing to the amounts of student debt incurred by each generation. For example, while Baby Boomers had the lowest amount of student debt, they also had twice as many respondents who didn’t even go to college, thereby contributing to the deep divide. 

Save for Your Future

More: 9 Ways Student Debt Is Affecting Every Aspect of Americans’ Lives

Here’s a look at some of the highlighted findings of the GOBankingRates survey. 


To get a better handle on the difference between generations, here are the delineations for the purposes of this survey:

  • Generation Z: born 1997 and after, 11.73% of survey respondents
  • Millennial: born 1981-96, 39.07% of survey respondents
  • Gen X: born 1965-80, 31.41% of survey respondents
  • Baby Boomers: born 1946-64, 16% of survey respondents

See: Baby Boomers, Gen X or Millennials — Who Really Had It Worst Financially?
Find: How Gen Z Plans to Avoid Student Loans

Amount of Debt by Generation 

Student Loan Debt by Generation

Just 18.64% of Baby Boomers took on $10,000 or more of debt, far below levels of Generation Z, Millennials and Generation X, at 33.05%, 38.43% and 43.67%, respectively. However, just 23.1% of Gen X took on zero student debt, compared with 41.61% of Baby Boomers reporting they came out of college debt-free, nearly double the amount of younger generations. 

See: Is College Really Worth It? A Look at the Grim Reality for Student Loan Borrowers

Gender Differences Regarding Debt

Men took on more student debt at every level except the $1 to $999 bracket. Overall, 54.6% of women took on some type of student debt, vs. 63.65% of men. However, fewer women reported going to college, with 14.06% of women responding that they didn’t go to college vs. just 10.31% of men. In all, 28.68% of men reported taking on at least $20,000 of student debt, vs. 24.19% of women.

Save for Your Future

More: 3 Alarming Ways Women Are Lagging Behind Men When It Comes to Their Finances

What’s Driving Gen X’s College Debt Level?

While GOBankingRate’s survey didn’t ask respondents to explain the reasons behind their debt, there are a few explanations. The oldest side of Generation X hit the job market during the recession of the early 90s, while the younger GenX-ers faced the chilling effects of the dot-com bubble. This led to some GenX-ers deferring payments or making only minimum payments as well as returning to school for advanced degrees in greater numbers than Baby Boomers. Additionally, we have hit the age where Generation X have college-aged children of their own and are taking on student loan debt for their children, according to the CFPB. When you add all these factors up, it gives a few clues as to why Generation X is loaded with the most debt of all, a fact backed up by credit agency Experian in a recent report.

As with any statistics and surveys, a number of factors can contribute to the final results. However, it seems clear from the responses from this GOBankingRates survey that student debt has become a problem for recent generations, and it is a sizable one.

More From GOBankingRates

Save for Your Future


Share this article:

facebook sharing button
twitter sharing button
linkedin sharing button
email sharing button
Save for Your Future

About the Author

After earning a B.A. in English with a Specialization in Business from UCLA, John Csiszar worked in the financial services industry as a registered representative for 18 years. Along the way, Csiszar earned both Certified Financial Planner and Registered Investment Adviser designations, in addition to being licensed as a life agent, while working for both a major Wall Street wirehouse and for his own investment advisory firm. During his time as an advisor, Csiszar managed over $100 million in client assets while providing individualized investment plans for hundreds of clients.
Learn More


See Today's Best
Banking Offers