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Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, accompanied by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others, including Rep. Alma Adams, call for forgiving student loan debt on Feb. 4, 2021, in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/AP) Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, accompanied by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others, including Rep. Alma Adams, call for forgiving student loan debt on Feb. 4, 2021, in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Senate Majority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer, accompanied by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and others, including Rep. Alma Adams, call for forgiving student loan debt on Feb. 4, 2021, in Washington. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Paul Specht
By Paul Specht February 12, 2021

Democrats say 40% of people with college debt didn't get degrees

If Your Time is short

  • U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, D-NC, and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-MA, have both said almost 40% of student loan borrows didn't finish their degree.
  • Warren cited an analysis of federal government data by a researcher who worked at a progressive think tank.
  • There aren't many reports studying this specific issue. That said, experts believe the researcher's analysis is accurate.

Rep. Alma Adams, D-N.C., says many Americans carrying heavy student loan debt aren’t even getting their money’s worth.

Her comments come as the Biden administration considers action to relieve some student loan debt.

"Almost 40% of borrowers with student loan debt didn't finish their degree. Now, they face the worst of both worlds: all of the debt and no degree," Adams tweeted on Feb. 9.

Is it true that nearly 40% of borrowers didn’t finish their degree? 

Adams’ tweet caught our attention because it didn’t cite a source for her claim. When we reached out to Adams’ office, a spokesman said Adams got the statistic from Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

Warren tweeted a similar claim on Jan. 27, saying: "Up to 4 in 10 people with student loan debt weren’t able to graduate, many because of high costs, so now they’re in the worst of both worlds—crushed by debt, with no diploma to boost their earnings."

Warren mentioned the statistic again during a Feb. 3 confirmation hearing for President Biden’s nominee for education secretary. (Warren has previously misstated facts about student loans.)

After speaking with Warren’s office and tracking down the origins of this claim, it appears the stat shared by Warren and Adams is on track. However, it's based on a limited data set with a short tracking period.

Recent report

Warren’s office said her source is data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics and analyzed by Mark Huelsman, former associate director of policy and research for Demos, a progressive think tank.

Huelsman now works as a fellow at Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. He’s also a fellow at the Student Borrower Protection Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Huelsman told PolitiFact that he looked at students who entered college in the 2011-12 school year who had taken on debt from public or private lenders. Then he looked at whether those students graduated by 2017.

"I looked at cumulative debt. If you had any debt at any point going to college, did you graduate?" he said.

The number that emerged from his research: 38.6% of people who took out student loans in that six-year span did not complete their college education in that period.

Featured Fact-check

PolitiFact reached out to other experts about Huelsman’s findings. 

Adam Looney, an economics expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, and Judith Scott-Clayton, a professor of economics and education at Columbia University, said they analyzed the same NCES data and got virtually the same result.

Lack of data

Of course, Huelsman’s analysis is just a snapshot of a specific time period. Experts at the NCES and the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, look at graduation rates in six-year windows because that period can account for part-time students and other variables, as explained in a recent institute report.

However, some people do return to school outside the six-year timeframe and ultimately earn their degree," said Jill Barshay, a writer and editor for The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit newsroom that covers education.

"The problem with the six-year time frame is that many many people take longer than 6 years to get a degree," Barshay said in an email. "I don't know what percentage of them eventually do. Some colleges like to use an 8 year period for measuring how many students complete their 4 year degrees."

We asked Looney and Scott-Clayton if they’re aware of other significant studies on the issue. They said information tracking individual debt repayment and college completion over the long term is hard to come by. 

"This every-8-year survey is the best that is readily available," Looney said.

In an email, Scott-Clayton said:

"Unfortunately, the number of datasets that link information on borrowing with information on degree completion are rare. A lot of student loan borrowing statistics (e.g. that come out of the Federal Reserve Banks) are based on credit report data — these are not connected to any info on degree completions. That's why we have to rely on these NCES surveys which track people over time and gather a lot of rich info, but are only fielded every so often."

Huelsman pointed out that his 38.6% figure for student-loan borrowers tracks with overall college graduation trends. The NCES last year reported that the overall six-year graduation rate for most full-time undergraduate students was 62% in 2018, meaning nearly 40% didn’t graduate.

In the debate over whether lawmakers should forgive student loan debts, Looney says it’s important to note that the nearly 40% of non-graduates do not hold 40% of the debt.

"While 39% of borrowers did not complete a degree, they account for only 23% of ebt borrowed," Looney said. Bachelor’s degree holders account for 41% of all borrowers, but hold 64% of the debt, Looney said.

Our ruling

Adams tweeted "almost 40% of borrowers with student loan debt didn't finish their degree."

Three different analyses of data from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 38% to 39% of people who took out college loans between 2012-2017 didn’t finish college in that period.

While there's a lack of data on this specific issue, experts say this analysis is the most reliable to date. We rate this claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

Tweet by U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, D-NC, on Feb. 9, 2021.

Tweet by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Jan. 27, 2021.

Tweet by Mark Huelsman, a former researcher for the Demos think tank, on Nov. 20, 2020.

Telephone and email interviews with Mark Huelsman, a fellow at Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice as well as the Student Borrower Protection Center, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Email interview with Adam Looney, an economics expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

Email interview with Judith Scott-Clayton, a professor of economics and education at Columbia University.

Email interview with Jill Barshay, a writer and editor for The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit newsroom that covers education.

Information on the National Center for Education Statistics website and a report on 6-year graduation rates.

Press release by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, "Education Secretary Nominee Dr. Miguel Cardona commits to using all available tools to get borrowers immediate student debt relief," issued Feb. 3, 2021.

Report by the Urban Institute, "Measuring program-level completion rates," published in January 2020.

Story by the Associated Press, "Biden officials considering action on student debt relief," published Feb. 4, 2021.

Story by PolitiFact, "Elizabeth Warren misstates findings of racial disparities in student loans," posted Nov. 21, 2019.

Story by NPR, "College completion rates are up, but the numbers will still surprise you," posted March 13, 2019.

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More by Paul Specht

Democrats say 40% of people with college debt didn't get degrees

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