The AIR Professional File
Spring 2020, Article 148 

National Trends in Federal Student Loan Borrowing by Income Group and First-Generation Status

Monnica Chan, Jihye Kwon, David Nguyen, Katherine M. Saunders, Nilkamal Shah, Katie M. Smith  

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Students are increasingly likely to use student loans to finance their postsecondary education. This article examines how students’ use of federal loans changed from 2000 to 2016 by students’ family income group and parental education level. We use logistic regression analysis and nationally representative data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. We find that the odds of a student taking out a loan have converged over time across family income groups and across parental education levels, even after controlling for institutional sector and student demographic characteristics. Low-to-moderate-income students are now just as likely to borrow as are low-income students; likewise, continuing-generation college students are just as likely to borrow as are first- generation college students. Converging borrowing behavior across student groups has important implications for how we measure and benchmark college affordability.

Keywords: student loan, debt, income, first-generation

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Authorship order was determined alphabetically. We thank Dr. Nicholas Hillman for his encouragement and guidance. We also thank seminar participants at the NCES Data Institute, current and former staff with the National Center for Education Statistics and the Association for Institutional Research, particularly Sean Simone for sharing his knowledge of National Postsecondary Student Aid Study survey changes over time, as well as Tinsley Smith and Conor Griffiths for their enthusiastic support. This material is based on work supported by the Association for Institutional Research and the National Center for Education Statistics. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Association for Institutional Research and the National Center for Education Statistics.


Monnica Chan, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Jihye Kwon, Norther Kentucky University

David Nguyen, Ohio University

Katherine M. Saunders, United Negro College Fund

Nilkamal Shah, Township High School District 214 in Oak Lawn, Illinois

Katie N. Smith, Seton Hall University


Copyright © Association for Institutional Research 2020

This paper is from the 2018 NCES Data Institute. For more information, visit: