In the Herald Jack Tame confessed he was one of the lucky ones with parents able to help fund his university study.

But what if you're not so lucky? Let's cut through scaremongering media stories and the myth about an arts graduate with a large student loan manning a fast fryer at the local burger joint. Let's look at the norm.

According to the Government's 2016 Student Loan Annual Report, the average student borrows around $9676 annually, resulting in a median loan balance of $29,610 at graduation. Of students still in New Zealand following graduation, only 4 per cent of have a debt of more than $60,000 and only 12 per cent have a debt of more than $40,000.

In general, the graduates with the highest leave balances are the ones who did masters or doctorate level study - spending 5-8 years in their studies rather than the 3-4 years required for a typical undergraduate degree. So, is it a good investment for students who do take on these loans?


The answer, for most students, is yes.

The unemployment rate for graduates averages 2-3 per cent across all subjects 3-4 years after graduating. This can be compared with unemployment rates of 11-15 per cent for those with just a high school qualification a similar period after leaving school.

And, according to the most recent Census returns, a degree holder will earn $1.5m more over their working life than someone with just a school-level qualification.

But does getting those higher-level qualifications (masters and doctorate) pay for itself given they are also likely to get higher levels of debt? Again, the answer is yes.

An average masters graduate will earn $1.65m over their working life and an average PhD around $2.1m.

Interestingly, the median time to repay student loans is 8.9 years for bachelors level qualification and, despite loan balances being higher, the repayment time for postgraduate degrees is lower at 7.8 years thanks to higher earnings and improved employment prospects following completion of studies.

Average student loan balances have been rising in recent years and the finger is often incorrectly pointed at rising fees.

Though there have been small increases, the main reason for rising loan balances is that more students are pursuing 3-4 year degrees and fewer are choosing 1-2 year certificates and diplomas. The longer you study, the more you are likely to borrow, but the greater the benefits.

Students undertaking shorter courses will naturally incur less debt, but they're also likely to earn less over their working lives. Median hourly earnings are 65 per cent higher for New Zealanders with a degree or higher qualification compared with those with no qualifications - this is more than twice the earnings premium of those with lower level tertiary qualifications.

"Another key reason for increased loan size is that we've seen a change in what students study; today about half of all bachelor's degree students are studying science, technology, engineering, health or the environment. They're taking on qualifications that have higher course costs and therefore higher fees.

So, all in all, when you hear about graduates with extraordinarily high debt, keep it in perspective and check the facts.