GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – Now we know why there has been so much interest in the Triad about the idea of eliminating student loan debt: A lot of us owe significant sums and don’t really earn enough to pay the tab.

President Joe Biden campaigned under the promise of eliminating at least some student loan debt – which is at $1.61 trillion and is seen to stymie to the ability of some young adults to find solid financial footing – and in recent weeks White House officials have talked about various plans being considered.

The concept has become a hot political topic, with Republicans generally opposing it. A recent WGHP/Nexstar debate between two GOP candidates for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina, Pat McCrory and Mark Walker showed that neither candidate supported such action.

But a recent study by WalletHub, the personal finance website that analyzes all sorts of data to inform us about our lives, shows that residents of North Carolina – and Greensboro in particular – have been hit hard by student debt, ranking among the worst ratios of debt to income in the nation.

WalletHub calculated that the overall student loan debt averages about $37,000 per borrower, and to rank the problem geographically its analysts compared the median student-loan balance against media earnings of adults 25 and older with bachelor’s degrees.

Source: WalletHub

They looked at 2,510 cities, and here’s what WalletHub found about Greensboro residents’ student debt and its effects:

  • The median loan balance is $26,402.
  • The median earnings of a Greensboro resident with a bachelor’s degree is $45,379.
  • That creates a ratio of debt to earnings of 58.18%, which ranks in the fifth percentile nationally – the top 5% – for the worst rates of student debt.

But Greensboro isn’t alone among cities in the Piedmont Triad. Winston-Salem and Lexington rank in the seventh percentile. Winston-Salem is at 55.67%, with an average debt of $24,621 vs. a median income of $44,226. Lexington (54.92%) has a low median debt of $17,260 but a $31,428 median income.

Mebane ranks in the 11th percentile, with a ratio of 51.62% based on a median debt of a relatively high $26,871 vs. median income of $52,063, which is one of the higher levels. Reidsville is in the 15th percentile, with a 49.67% ratio based on a lower debt ($19,735) vs. lower income ($39,735), and Mount Airy (45.48%) is in the 26th ($17,508 vs. $38,500).

Asheboro ranks in the 19th percentile, at 47.48%, with $19,179 median debt against $40,397 median income. Thomasville has a low debt ($18,886) but an income of $41,420, so its 45.6% ranks in the 24th percentile.

High Point is in the 31st percentile, with a 43.1% ratio ($22,375 vs. $51,916), and Burlington (42.64%) and Graham (42.61%) both rank in the 33rd percentile. Kernersville is 36th (41.77% on $20,725 median debt vs. $46,619 median income). Mocksville (36.51%) is in the 58th ($18,914 vs. $51,800).

Marion and Elizabeth City have the worst ratios in North Carolina, ranking in the third percentile. Marion, at 64.51%, has one of the lowest rates of debt ($17,336), but its median salary for someone with a bachelor’s degree is $26,832, also near the bottom. Elizabeth City’s ratio is 64.54% based on $23,536 vs. $36,467.

By comparison, Charlotte ranks among the highest levels of median debt, $27,144, but it also ranks among the higher for median income, $57,352, so its ratio of 47.33% is only in the 20th percentile. Raleigh has $24,513 in debt vs. $55,449 in median income for a ratio of 44.21%, which ranks in the 28th percentile.

The worst ratios nationally were in Selma, Alabama, which is at 84.33%, Ypsilanti, Michigan, at 83.64%, and Avon Park, Florida, at 83.14%. Cordele, Georgia, and Ridgeland and McComb in Mississippi all rank at higher than 80%.

The good news

But then there is some good news, too. Eden ranks among the best ratios, in the 83rd percentile, with among the lowest median debt ($13,809) vs. $45,972 in median income, for a ratio of 30.04%. The best rate in North Carolina is Waxhaw, in Union County, which has an average debt of $17,736 vs. $71,324 in income for a 24.87% ratio.

Newton, Apex and Holly Springs all rank in the 90th percentiles and higher. Apex’s median income is $80,203, which is among the highest among those cities surveyed.

The nation’s best ratio is in Coachella, California, where the median debt is only $9,320 vs. a median income of $73,606, or 12.66%.

Around North Carolina

Some 1.3 million North Carolinians owe an estimated $48 billion in student loans. (Getty Images)

North Carolina’s legislature in 2021 advanced a bill called the “Student Borrowers’ Bill of Rights,” which said 1.3 million North Carolinians owe $48 billion, which is $36,200 per borrower, or slightly lower than WalletHub’s calculated average.

The bill, which has bipartisan support, would provide protection if not debt relief, but the problem it specifies is amplified in these figures from around North Carolina as calculated by WalletHub:

  • Rocky Mount (at 59.02%) ranks in the fifth percentile, with a median debt of $27,139 vs. a median salary of $45,984.
  • Durham (56.65%), Greenville (57.02%) and Chapel Hill (57.01%) all rank in the sixth percentile. Rockingham (the city) is in the seventh percentile (56.21%), largely because its average income is $35,198, along with Asheville (55.57%) and Hillsborough (55.33%).
  • Henderson (54.54%) is in the eighth percentile, and Raeford (54.19%), Laurinburg (53.75%) and Fayetteville (53.72%) are in the ninth. Winterville (52.02%), Hope Mills (51.9%) and Waynesville (51.87%) are in the 11th percentile. Lumberton (51.57%) and Sanford (51.17%) are in the 12th percentile.
  • Franklin (50.93%), Taylorsville (50.74%), and Leland (50.6%) are in the 13th percentile. Goldsboro (50.35%) is in the 14th, and Roxboro (49.56%) is in the 15th.
  • Clinton (48.59%) and Garner (48.5%) are in the 17th percentile. Clayton (47.36%) is in the 20th, and Shelby (46.87%) is in the 21st. Lincolnton (46.07%) and Wilmington (46.05%) are in the 23rd. Matthews (45.68%) and Statesville (45.62%) are in the 24th. Dunn (45.33%) and Washington (45.24%) are in the 25th.

Various other North Carolina cities rank even lower for ratios. You can search the data by city.

The bigger issue

“We have an entire generation saddled with over a trillion dollars in student loan debt, who have pursued employment during some of the most economically difficult and stratified times in recent history, who are not yet the majority within political decision making, and who are working to support an emerging generation that is stepping into similar conditions,” Desiree Zerquera, chair of the Department of Leadership Studies in the School of Education at the University of San Francisco, said in a release from WalletHub. “These conditions are calling into question the ways higher education is funded and supported, or rather, is not supported by our political economy.

“The cost of higher education has more to do with a shift in public funding priorities as it does with anything else. This signals a deprioritization of higher education as being something we invest in collectively because it is good for all of us.”