A recent Fed report suggests that the college debt problem isn’t as bad as we think—though it might feel more burdensome to those not satisfied with their educations

Students, parents, and policymakers regularly lament the cost of college, and particularly the amount of debt many students carry. Last week, the White House announced plans to cancel $10,000 in student debt per borrower. But a recent report from the Federal Reserve Board suggests that student debt is not as staggering as advocates of loan forgiveness claim—and offers insights into why some feel those burdens more acutely than others. It may have something to do with degree and career satisfaction.

The size of the problem is not quite of the magnitude that we are often led to believe. As many as 45 percent of those who hold student loan debt owe less than $20,000; another 15 percent owe less than $30,000. Just 10 percent owe more than $100,000—probably because they chose to attend expensive private colleges or universities, or to enroll in graduate degree programs (like law or medicine) more likely to lead to lucrative careers. And while we regularly hear about Americans falling behind on their student loan repayments, particularly during the pandemic, only 6 percent of borrowers with a bachelor’s degree are behind on their loans. In any case, no good reason exists to offer blanket loan forgiveness to those (mostly wealthier) students who have decided to take on more debt.

That said, carrying debt definitely affected how likely people were to say that the costs of their education outweighed the benefits. According to the Fed report, just over three in ten associate degree recipients with outstanding debt said that the benefits exceeded the costs, compared with half of those without outstanding debt. Among bachelor’s degree holders with debt, 72 percent said the costs of their education were greater than the benefits, compared with only 46 percent of those who never had debt.

A full fifth of Americans who went to college say it wasn’t worth it. That’s a lot of people who think that they made the wrong decision, especially considering how most of the cultural messages young people receive say that college is the right choice for everyone. Not surprisingly, those who didn’t finish their degrees are the most likely to say that college wasn’t worth it. Half a college degree isn’t worth much, but it can certainly cost a lot. These respondents were probably among the least inclined to go to college in the first place. Older people were most likely to say that their education was worth it, and this could be because they have had the most time to reap the benefits. It’s also possible that younger people had to pay much more for college, relatively speaking, and that the quality of higher education has become watered down over time.

According to the Fed report, the most common change people would make if they could do things over again would be to get more education—and a significant portion of respondents also said that they would have chosen a different field of study. This was particularly true for adults who didn’t complete their degrees. They typically wished they had studied something more closely related to the field that they would end up working in.

Humanities majors, perhaps not surprisingly, had the biggest regrets. Among adults who completed at least some college and who are not currently enrolled, almost half of humanities majors wished that they had studied something else. Social science majors came in a close second. It’s easy to say that such fields don’t automatically translate into lucrative career paths, but that has been true for years. It’s hard to imagine anyone going into the humanities or social sciences over the past 50 years thinking that they were the best way to make money.

This study is too broad, covering too many different kinds of colleges and college experiences to get a good sense of why people wished they could have done things differently. Perhaps the regret came from what they were and were not taught. The people least likely to regret their fields of study were those with engineering or computer science degrees. Why do less than a quarter of engineering majors wish they had chosen differently, compared with a third of computer and information science majors? Perhaps it’s because engineering is the most transparent field. What you expect to do with your degree is pretty close to what you wind up doing. And the money is good, no matter what school you attended. A Wall Street Journal study from a few years ago found almost no difference in salary among engineering degree holders from elite and nonelite schools.

Some of these regrets may reflect how people change over time. What you think will interest you at age 20 may not be what you want to spend your time doing at age 50. Maybe there’s nothing colleges can do to fix that. But providing broader exposure to a range of disciplines early in college—in the form of general education requirements, for instance—might give students a better sense of what they’re getting into. And colleges could do more to survey their own alumni experiences. For private and particularly for public universities, students should be able to find out whether students who attended five or 10 or 15 years ago were satisfied with their experience and what they would have done differently.

For policymakers concerned about student debt, such transparency may be the best way forward. Even the burden of a small amount of borrowing is aggravated by courses of study that don’t lead to the kinds of good jobs that would make the debt easier to carry.