Student Debt, Rising Again

Annual report finds a 2 percent uptick in undergraduates' student loan burdens, and a 56 percent increase over 10 years.

October 27, 2015

Students who took out student loans and graduated with a bachelor's degree in 2014 had an average debt load of $28,950, up 2 percent from the year before and 56 percent more than their peers from 10 years earlier, the Institute for College Access and Success says in a report released today.

The 10th annual report from the institute, which is based on data reported by more than 1,000 individual colleges and universities representing more than three-quarters of all bachelor's degree recipients, finds that 69 percent of those graduates in 2014 took out loans to help finance their studies. Their average debt of $28,950 was up from $28,400 for the class of 2013.

About one-sixth of all debt accumulated by the 2014 graduates was in the form of private student loans, which typically carry higher interest rates and have fewer protections than federal loans. That is down slightly from recent years, when private loans accounted for nearly 20 percent of all debt for graduates.

The average across all graduates masks major differences across states and individual institutions. The state averages ranged from below $20,000 (Utah at $18,921 and New Mexico at $18,969) to more than $33,000 (Delaware at $33,808, New Hampshire at $33,410 and Pennsylvania at $33,264), with big states such as California ($21,382), Florida ($24,947), Texas ($26,250) and New York ($27,822) falling in between.

Institution-level averages ranged from $4,750 to $60,750, with 154 colleges reporting average debt of more than $35,000. The report also lists a set of 20 colleges whose graduates had less than $14,000 in debt. TICAS provides a map with state data here and a sortable table of institutions here. For-profit colleges are excluded from the study, because few if any of them report student loan debt, even if borrowing is quite common at their institutions.

A Decade's Worth of Data

Because TICAS has been producing this report for 10 years, this year's report compares the 2014 student debt picture with that of 2004, the first year on which it reported.

It will surprise few that the portrait looks worse. While inflation has increased by 25 percent over that decade, the average student debt burden has grown by 56 percent, to $28,950 from $18,550.

A table in the report compares the average debt burdens at the state level, and shows enormous variation in the change in various states' debt levels, including 129 percent and 118 percent increases in Delaware and Maryland, respectively, versus increases as small as 17 percent and 21 percent in Idaho and Louisiana, respectively.

But the big asterisk the institute put on that table reflects a larger problem that plagues the report and the student aid policy landscape: the dearth of available data about student loans. Because the federal government does not require colleges to report debt levels for their graduates, and federal data do not include precise information on private student loans, TICAS was forced to depend on voluntary reporting by institutions -- and it is inconsistent from year to year. So the validity of the report's state-by-state comparisons over a decade are limited, TICAS acknowledges, by variation in how many colleges reported in the two years, and the (in-)accuracy of those data.

“The limitations of relying on voluntarily reported data underscore the need for federal collection of cumulative student debt data for all schools,” the report states. “Even for colleges that do report voluntarily, the debt figures in this report may understate actual borrowing because they do not include transfer students or any private loans the college was unaware of.”


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