News that student loan debt, at $830 billion, exceeded credit card debt for the first time has sparked renewed interest in the financing of college and its implications for students. Largely ignored in the discussion, however, is the shadow debt, which consists of unorthodox methods of borrowing for college, including home equity loans and lines of credit, retirement account loans, credit card debt, and run-of-the-mill bank loans. Because these borrowing instruments often have many alternative uses, we have to rely on surveys to determine how much of the total amount borrowed in each category is devoted to paying for college. The most comprehensive such survey is conducted by Sallie Mae and Gallup. Their findings indicate that shadow debt adds just under $30 billion to the annual borrowing for higher education (see this link for more details on the calculation). As shown in the table below, when this is added to the $96 billion in college specific loans, we can conclude that Americans borrow roughly $126 billion a year to pay for college.
CAU_table.gifOf course, there are a number of caveats to this number. To begin with, this is at best a back of the envelope calculation, and better data would allow for a more accurate picture to be painted. In addition, some of this may not be borrowing in the normal sense of the term. For instance, some well off families may pay for tuition on a credit card to receive the rewards associated with their card, and then pay off the balance immediately. There is also the fact that some of the education borrowing is not used solely for education. I knew people who used student loan money to purchase a car, or a big screen TV, and even breast implants. At the same time, not counted are informal loans from family and friends. Thus, $126 billion is the best estimate we have for the amount of money that Americans borrow for college.