If members of the Class of 2017 have somehow managed to minimize student loan and credit card debt, maybe a graduation car is in order.
But that's a big "maybe."
Students have every reason to be skeptical of lists full of cars that are supposedly great for graduates. Most lists are full of models deemed "inexpensive," but just consider what automakers are charging for cars. Kelley Blue Book put the average price of a vehicle at All of those prices are well below the $34,552 in April. That's up nearly 2% since the same time last year and ranges from an average of $16,283 for a subcompact car to more than $95,545 for a high-end luxury car.
"While new vehicle sales appear to be on the decline, most manufacturers are seeing higher retail transaction prices, with the industry average on new-car prices up for the month by nearly 2%," says Tim Fleming, analyst for Kelley Blue Book. "These increases appear to be primarily driven by the shift in demand toward SUVs, even with growing segments, such as subcompact SUVs and luxury compact SUVs, seeing year-over-year price declines. Kelley Blue Book anticipates average transaction prices will likely begin to decrease when the sales mix of SUVs eventually levels off."
It's going to require a fairly steep drop to make vehicles affordable for the average college graduate. Student loan and financial advice site Cappex reminds us that, last year, the average student loan debt for a graduate who just received a bachelor's degree was $37,172. That's up 6% from 2015, with debt carried by 70.1% of all graduates. That's also up from $12,759 two decades ago, when just 54% of all students graduated with debt.
Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York notes that total student loan debt reached $1.21 trillion by the end of 2016. That's up $78 billion from a year earlier and is the second largest pile of U.S. consumer debt behind mortgage debt (at $8.48 trillion, up $231 billion from a year ago). That debt makes it much harder for students to add to the nation's $1.16 trillion in auto loan debt (up $93 billion from a year earlier).
According to the FRBNY, more than one in ten (11.2%) student loans are past due. That's a worse delinquency rate than even that of credit card bills, of which 7.1% are past due. However, it's easier to pay off all of the above when you have a job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the current unemployment rate at 4.4%, that jumps to 8.2% for people ages 20 to 24 -- or roughly the age of most recent college graduates. Only 70.4% of people that age are an active part of the workforce, compared to nearly 81.7% of those between 25 and 54. All of that is actually an improvement on what older Millennials faced just after the recession.
As a result, the share of new cars being bought by Americans between 18 and 34 is down 30% in the last five years, according to auto pricing site Edmunds.com. A Pew Research Center study notes that people under 35 bought 12% fewer cars than they did in 2010. The Department of Transportation notes that just 28% of 16-year-olds had driver's licenses in 2010, with just 45% of 17-year-olds claiming the same. That's plummeted from 50% and 66% respectively in 1978. While the number of 16-year-olds with driver's licenses peaked at 1.72 million in 2009, it plummeted to 1.08 million by 2014.
Last year, the folks at car shopping site CarGurus.com surveyed college students who are about to graduate college within the next year and discovered exactly why they may be shying away from the experience. Roughly 57% of college students planned on paying for a car on their own, with 46% spending $15,000 or less. That likely means a used or Certified Pre-Owned car, which can be an issue all its own.
The folks at Manheim Consulting keep track of used vehicle prices and note that while they've come down from their peak in 2011, when automaker bankruptcies and a lack of leasing left used vehicles in short supply, they're still well higher than they were just before the recession began. Used vehicle sales are up 3.6% from a year ago, but even the prices at auction sales have risen 1.6% during that time. For example, taking $5,000 to auction back in 2003 could get you a car with 70,000 miles on it, on average. Go to auction with that same $5,000 today, however, and that car is likely to have more than 110,000 miles on it, according to Manheim.
With 71% of graduates with a job telling CarGurus they'll be driving to work, 67% of those getting a car plan to buy used. However, if you a grad with a little more cash to throw around or a generous relative offering to absorb some of the costs, KBB's sibling publication AutoTrader and CarGurus have suggested 17 vehicles that might fits the needs of the Class of 2017.