Nearly half of Americans say that if they had it to do all over again, they would not take out a student loan to pay for their college education, Northwestern Mutual found in its latest 2020 "Planning & Progress" study.

The latest set of findings from the study show the impact that student debt can have on a financial plan. Among U.S. adults aged 18 and older who hold student debt, the average amount owed is $24,155. And if they had to do it over again, 42% of respondents said they wouldn’t take out a student loan at all.

The study found that one in four members of Gen Z and 24% of millennials hold student debt, while 16% of Gen X participants do. Gen Xers said they owed an average of $34,075 in student debt, while Gen Z participants owed an average of $15,798 and millennials an average of $21,367.

The younger the respondent, the more optimistic they were about how long it would take to pay off their student debt, the study found. Nearly half of both Gen Z (46%) and millennials (47%) said they expected to pay off their student debt within one to five years, while 33% of Gen X participants did. In contrast, Northwestern Mutual said, 11% of Americans of all generations surveyed who hold student debt say they anticipate it would take more than 20 years to pay it off.

Two in five Americans (40%) said they did not have a proper understanding of the implications of taking on student debt when they chose to apply for a loan. Additionally, two-thirds (66%) said they would have changed something about their decision if given the chance, such as borrowing less (36%) or not having borrowed at all (42%).

One in six respondents surveyed (16%) said they received significant support with payments from family members, with 31% of Gen Z and 19% of millennials turning to their parents for help in paying off their student loans, and 25% of Gen X and 22% of millennials expecting their spouse/partner to help pay down their student loan debt.

Christian Mitchell, executive vice president and chief customer officer at Northwestern Mutual, said in a news release that while student loans are often a great way to make higher education accessible and affordable, all too often loan applicants forget that the money is not a grant.

“Its important to approach any decision about debt as part of a long-term financial plan,” he said. “It’s also important to have a plan for managing debt after school ends, especially today as millions of students graduate and enter a job market with high unemployment and uncertainty resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The annual research series was conducted on behalf of Northwestern Mutual by the Harris Poll. For the 2020 study, 2,650 American adults aged 18 or older participated in an online survey conducted between February 12 and 15, 2020. A second wave of the study included 2,077 adults aged 18 or older who participated between April 29-May 1, 2020.

Northwestern Mutual is headquartered in Milwaukee.

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