The amount Americans owe on student loans is far higher than earlier estimates and could lead some consumers to postpone buying homes, potentially slowing the housing recovery, U.S. officials said Wednesday.
Total student debt outstanding appears to have surpassed $1 trillion late last year, said officials at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a federal agency created in the wake of the financial crisis. That would be roughly 16% higher than an estimate earlier this year by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
The new figure—released Wednesday at a banking conference in Austin, Texas—is a preliminary finding from a study of student debt that the bureau plans to release this summer. Bureau officials said the estimate is based on a survey of private lenders, as opposed to other estimates that rely on a sampling of consumer credit reports.
CFPB officials say student debt is rising for several reasons, including a surge in Americans going to college in recent years to escape the weak labor market. Also, tuition increases—which many colleges say are needed to offset big cuts in state funding—have many students taking out bigger loans.
In addition, the interest costs on older loans are climbing as borrowers fall behind on payments, reflecting mounting financial strains, bureau officials said. New York Fed data show that as many as one in four student borrowers who have begun repaying their education debts are behind on payments.
Economists say college is an increasingly good investment because of the widening pay gap between jobs that require a degree and those that don't. Ultimately, the educational degrees and added skills are meant to help workers earn higher incomes that, in time, will more than offset the student debt.
But as more people go to college and assume bigger loans for education, they may take longer than previous generations to hit key milestones such as buying a house or getting married, U.S. officials and economists say. It could take longer for heavily indebted graduates to save money for a down payment on a home, or it could be harder for them to qualify for mortgages.
Rohit Chopra, student-loan ombudsman for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, said student debt could ultimately slow the recovery of the housing market. "First-time home-buyers are a substantial part of the housing market," Mr. Chopra said in a speech at the banking conference in Austin. "Instead of saving for a down payment, these borrowers are sending big payments every month."
Student debt is a burden not just for recent college graduates in their 20s but also parents, who often co-sign their children's student loans, as well as midcareer professionals who opted to go back to school during the sluggish recovery.
David Johnson, a 58-year-old groundskeeper from Milton, Wash., decided to leave gardening after more than two decades to become a nurse. Two years ago, he took out about $18,000 in private and federal loans to attend a local community college that had a nursing program. After completing prerequisite classes, he learned that the program had a waiting list. With no guarantee of getting into the nursing program, he is wondering whether to take out more debt to continue in school.
"It's an awkward place to be. I'm not yet a nurse but I've got all this debt and interest compounding on me," he said. "I don't have a lot of working years left and I'm saddled with this debt."