Affluent students borrowing more for college

It's well known that young Americans have had to take on massive amounts of student loans to pay for the soaring cost of college. More surprising is that borrowing over the last two decades has risen the fastest among affluent families.

Half of 2012 college graduates who come from high-income families borrowed money for college, double the rate that did so in 1992, according to a new report by the Pew Research Center. The group, which analyzed federal data, classified families as high-income if household earnings were above $125,772.

Borrowing also has risen for families slightly lower down the income ladder. Some 62 percent of 2012 graduates from upper-middle income households -- or those making $83,407 to $125,772 -- left college with debt compared, with roughly 34 percent two decades ago.

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Pew Research Center

Borrowing has also jumped among graduates with highly educated parents. Sixty-one percent of students with college-educated parents left school with debt. That represents a 50 percent increase from the same demographic group 20 years ago. The increase in borrowing among students whose parents have less education was significantly smaller.

While graduates from the wealthiest households saw the biggest increase in the rate of borrowing, low-income families continue to be more likely to graduate with student loans. Seventy percent of low-income students graduated with debt, versus 50 percent of their affluent peers.

Pew also concluded that women students were borrowing more than men. Among students who graduated in 2012, 71 percent of females left with debt, versus 67 percent for males. High-income women experienced the largest jump in the percent who borrowed (121 percent) among all groups compared to what they were borrowing 20 years ago. The rate of wealthy male students taking out loans increased 91 percent.

Why are women borrowing more than men? Other research has shown that female college students are more likely than males to come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The researchers suggested a few possible reasons why borrowing has risen fastest among better Americans. Over the last 20 years, more Americans have been able to borrow for college through federal loans. Prior to the early 1990s, federal student loans were restricted to those with financial need.

But during the recession, which started in 2007 , the wealth of the typical American household dropped 39 percent. What's more, during the financial crisis it became more difficult for parents to tap equity in their homes.

Another possibility is that affluent families are more likely to want their children to attend prestigious colleges, which tend to be pricier. These days, the cost of bragging carries a high price tag.