A women chained to debt (Image: Thinkstock)

Adults in the United States who hold student debt owe $24,155 on average and many regret being in that position, Northwestern Mutual reported Wednesday.

Forty-two percent of participants in the firm’s 2020 planning and progress study said they would not take a student loan if given a chance to rethink their decision.

The study showed that a quarter of Gen Z and millennials held student debt, compared with 16% of Gen X. Younger debt holders had lower averages than older ones:

  • Gen Z: $15,798
  • Millennials: $21,367
  • Gen X: $34,075

Not only that, younger generations appeared to be more optimistic about how long they expected to hold their student debt.

(Related: Record Low Student Loan Rates Expected in the Fall)

Nearly half of both Gen Z  and millennials said they expected to pay off their student debt within one to five years, compared with only one-third of Gen Xers.

Eleven percent of Americans with student debt overall said they would be holding their student debt for more than 20 years.

“Student loans are often a great way to make higher education accessible and affordable, but it’s important to approach any decision about debt as part of a long-term financial plan,” Christian Mitchell, chief customer officer at Northwestern Mutual, said in a statement.

“These findings offer hints that younger people are aware of the long-term implications of carrying student loan debt and are taking steps to tackle it early. Those instincts are promising and will be critical at a time when so many Americans are facing a period of financial recovery.”

The Harris Poll conducted an online survey between Feb. 12 and Feb. 25 among 2,650 American adults, and a second wave among 2,077 adults between April 29 and May 1.

Other Student Loan Findings

According to the survey findings, 40% of respondents lacked a good understanding of the implications of taking on student debt when they elected to seek a loan.

Sixty-six percent said they would change something about their decision given an opportunity to do so.

Forty-four percent of millennials and 41% of Gen X, but just 22% of Gen Z, said they would not have taken a loan at all. And 57% of Gen Z said they would have borrowed less.

“Too often student loans fall to almost a default decision without thinking through the longer-term implications,” Mitchell said. “While education is not necessarily something you can easily put a dollar value on, it’s also not something anyone wants to become a financial regret.”

Student loan debt holders are receiving significant support from family members, according to the study.

Thirty-one percent of Gen Z and 19% of millennials said their parents helped them pay off their debt. In addition, 25% of Gen Xers and 22% of millennials said their spouse or partner was chipping in to pay off their student loan debt.

Mitchell acknowledged that not everyone could rely on help from family members or other to make their student loan payment.

“Here again, we’re reminded of the importance of planning and managing debt over the long-term,” he said. “Working with a trusted financial advisor can be a helpful hand to navigate that process.”

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