Debunking Conventional Wisdom on Debt

Public/private status and tuition rates don't necessarily predict which students will borrow the most, study finds.
August 30, 2006

Which factors predict whether students will borrow a lot -- potentially too much? Attending a public college in a high tuition state? Attending a private college? Living in an expensive part of the country?

Maybe not.

A report issued Tuesday by the Project on Student Debt finds that conventional wisdom isn't necessarily correct when it comes to how much students borrow. The project sponsors research that tends to be highly critical of policies that result in high borrowing levels. The report's theme is that paying attention to debt issues -- through generous state aid programs, or rethinking the mix of loans and grants in financial aid packages -- can seriously reduce debt levels, even at high tuition institutions.

The study was based on data for 2005 college graduates reported by 1,400 four-year colleges -- public and private -- as collected by Thomson Peterson's for the company's databases and books. Among the findings:

  • Attending public colleges doesn't assure a student of a lower debt burden than he or she would face at private colleges. In seven states, the study found, average debt levels were higher at public than at private institutions. Those states are: Kentucky, South Carolina, Tennessee, Delaware, Arkansas, Iowa and North Dakota.
  • The states where graduates leave college with the most debt aren't those with the highest cost of living. The top five are: New Hampshire ($22,793), Iowa ($22,727), North Dakota ($22,682), Rhode Island ($20,798) and Pennsylvania ($20,775).
  • A number of institutions with low tuition rates, but high fees, end up graduating students with higher debt loads than students at much more expensive institutions (in terms of tuition).

The following table shows the top 10 states for student debt, overall and for public and private graduates.

Highest State Averages for Student Debt, Class of 2005

Rank Overall Public Private
1. New Hampshire Iowa Arizona
2. Iowa North Dakota Alaska
3. North Dakota New Hampshire New Hampshire
4. Rhode Island Pennsylvania Idaho
5. Pennsylvania South Dakota Montana
6. Minnesota Tennessee Oklahoma
7. Maine Maine Minnesota
8. South Dakota Oregon Washington
9. Washington Vermont Maine
10. Indiana Ohio Rhode Island

The report, which features data on all states, also notes that there are more than 30 colleges -- among them the California Institute of Technology; Centre, Eckerd, Gordon and Pomona Colleges; and Colgate, John Carroll, Princeton, Tufts and Yale Universities -- that charge more than $20,000 a year for tuition, but whose graduates leave with average debt of $15,000 or less.


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