Student Loan Debt Should Be Canceled. Until Then, Here Are The States & Colleges With The Lowest Student Debt

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During the pandemic, it’s been hard enough to cover living expenses month to month — and it’s worse when so many of us are also saddled with college debt. There was some relief in March when the CARES Act was passed in Congress, which suspended federal student loan payments and set interest rates to 0% until September 30th initially. Recently, with no new stimulus package passed, President Trump signed an executive order extending the student loan forbearance until December 31st. But these measures are temporary — what happens when they expire and the economic effects of COVID-19 are still affecting us? There have been growing calls for permanent debt cancellation, with a variety of proposals being put forth by lawmakers, but it’s unclear if any will actually pass.
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Student debt is one of the many national crises we’re facing in 2020. Collectively, we owe almost $1.7 trillion now. The vast majority of this debt is for federal student loans; only 7.7% are private loans. All the while, college keeps getting more expensive. For the 2019-2020 academic year, average in-state tuition for a public four-year college was $10,440, according to the College Board. With room and board included, it was $21,950. For out-of-state public four-year colleges, average tuition was $26,820. For private colleges, $36,880.
While the average amount of debt graduates left college with was $29,076 in 2019, the situation differs significantly from state to state and college to college. That’s why, for the fifth year, LendEDU has analyzed the state of student debt across 475 U.S. colleges. Ahead is a look at which states and colleges leave grads with the most and least debt.
The best states for student debt
Though Utah may be most known for Mormons and some of the country’s most stunning national parks, it’s time for the state to receive its dues for also being the least student debt-burdened state. It has the lowest average student debt, clocking in at around $16,633 per borrower. In 2019, Utah actually saw a 15.75% decrease in average debt per borrower. It also wins in terms of having the lowest proportion of students graduating with debt, at just 32%. 
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However, much of this may be due to cheap in-state tuition for public four-year universities, which averaged around $7,160 in 2019-2020. That’s the third cheapest in-state cost in the nation, behind Florida ($6,350) and Wyoming ($5,580). When it comes to out-of-state tuition, Utah adds a premium of over $14,000, resulting in an average tuition of $21,770. The other top five states with the lowest average student debt were New Mexico ($20,497), Nevada ($22,418), Florida ($22,953), and Wyoming ($23,444). But those states also had significantly higher proportions of students graduating with debt, in the high 40s compared to Utah’s 32%. 
Populous states like Texas ($24,655) and California ($25,112) also don’t rank too badly, coming in at numbers ten and 12, respectively. But California, unlike most of the states ranking above it, saw an increase in student debt load compared to 2018.
The worst states for student debt
If you’re looking for the most affordable college education possible, you might want to avoid New England. Though it boasts a lot of schools, many of them historic, it also has some of the steepest student debt. Connecticut is the bottom state on this ranking, with an average of $41,579 in student debt upon graduation. Then comes New Hampshire with $41,511. Pennsylvania ($38,521), Delaware ($37,447), and Maine ($36,339) round out the bottom five. The other two New England states reporting data came in at #39 (Massachusetts, $31,549) and #40 (Vermont, $31,619), and Rhode Island was not included in the study because it does not have any qualifying institutions. According to a 2016 report by the Boston Fed’s New England Public Policy Center, most of the high student debt in this region is due to the number of students “attending costlier, private, four-year institutions.” However, it also notes that graduates of colleges in this region tend to have lower rates of loan defaults and lower rates of delinquency.
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Other Northeastern states like Pennsylvania ($38,521), New Jersey ($31,818), and Maryland ($32,165) were also near the bottom. In Maine, 90% of students graduate with student debt, the highest proportion of any state. This dishonorable distinction is trailed by New Hampshire (81%) and Connecticut (80%). Though Tennessee comes fourth in highest proportion of debt-ridden graduates, it’s the only one in the top ten most indebted states whose average debt load is lower than the national average, at $28,821.
Utah saw the biggest decrease in student debt between the class of 2019 and class of 2018, but Louisiana also saw a fairly big decrease of 13.21%; Washington, D.C.’s debt decreased by 11.50%, Arkansas’s by 10.43%, Texas’ by 9.83%.
Schools where grads leave with least debt
LendEDU’s analysis also has a breakdown of all 475 schools included in its report. The school rankings look at the amount in loans (both federal and private, but not including parent loans) taken out by undergraduate students at four-year institutions who received a bachelor’s degree. By this measure, the winner is Bryn Athyn College of the New Church in southeastern Pennsylvania, where students leave with an average debt of $2,825. It’s a private Christian college with an undergraduate enrollment of under 300, according to US News. Number two is Texas A&M International University, whose undergrads leave with around $3,477 in loans. (Not to be confused with Texas A&M University in College Station, where students have an average of $24,590 in loans.)
Webb Institute in New York, Berea College in Kentucky, and California State University, Chico make up the remainder of the top five, with an average debt load under $6,000. Harvard University is #7, with an average of $6,170. Despite having the lowest average student debt overall, Utah’s first appearance on the individual school ranking is at #25 for Brigham Young University ($14,672).
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Schools where grads leave with most debt
All the way at the bottom of this ranking is the New York School of Interior Design, where the average debt is $65,401. #474 is the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston, with $58,012. (In 2017, the school was facing accreditation issues.) #473 is Immaculata University ($55,126) in Pennsylvania, #472 is The New School for Public Engagement ($54,566), and #471 is the Culinary Institute of America ($51,200). This means that three of the bottom five schools are in New York state — and all of them are in the Northeast.
Near the bottom we also see a lot of colleges in Pennsylvania, which is third from the bottom in overall state rankings: #473 Immaculata University ($55,126), #464 Duquesne University ($44,243),#461 Penn State Altoona ($43,294), #455 California University of Pennsylvania ($42,029), #450 University of Scranton ($41,570), #434 Penn State’s main campus University Park ($40,128), #427 University of Pittsburgh ($39,417), #420 Temple University ($38,634), and many others, including many of the 19 Penn State campuses.
Other notable bottom-ranking colleges include: #426 Savannah College of Art and Design ($39,328), #407 University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee ($37,261), #376 Western Michigan University ($35,204), #372 University of Alabama ($34,975), #366 University of Massachusetts Dartmouth ($34,824), and #365 George Washington University ($34,768).
Other notable schools
On the higher end of the ranking: #26 Queens College of the City University of New York ($14,738), #28 University of Texas Rio Grande Valley ($16,662), #33 Pomona College ($18,829), #45 University of Florida ($20,388), #52 University of Colorado Denver ($20,859), #56 University of South Florida ($21,463), #60 Xavier University of Louisiana ($21,820), #62 University of Illinois at Chicago ($21,934), #72 University of Nevada, Reno ($22,418), #73 University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ($22,466), #75 University of Central Florida ($22,561), #77 Stanford University ($22,897), and #78 University of Pennsylvania ($23,009).
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For HBCUs, where data was available: #60 Xavier University of Louisiana ($21,820), #87 Howard University ($23,507), #168 Tuskegee University ($26,500), #216 Virginia State University ($28,250), #218 Florida A&M University ($28,284), #226 Bowie State University ($28,807), #327 Prairie View A&M University ($32,960), #344 Hampton University ($33,680), #398 Lincoln University ($36,567), #438 Clark Atlanta University ($40,393), #463 North Carolina Central University ($44,228), #467 Morgan State University ($46,194)
Most Ivy League schools did not report financial aid for 2019-2020 to the database used by LendEDU. But Ivy League schools are known for having big endowments and offering a more generous financial aid package than average, which may explain why Harvard ranked at just #7. In fact, several of them are among the growing number of colleges that have a no-loan financial aid policy. However, in reality, a sizable proportion of students even at these schools have to take out loans to attend.
Over the past few years, more and more students seem to view leaving college without debt as a priority. When including students who graduated with no debt, the average student debt amount becomes $15,919, not $29,076 — and this is a decrease from $16,649 for the class of 2018. It’s unclear how COVID-19 will affect this trend, though. On the one hand, it’s already led to a drop in enrollment. But the New York Times recently reported that the pandemic has led to increased interest in for-profit colleges, which often target low-income populations — those attending for-profit colleges often take on higher student loans than average, with a much higher likelihood of defaulting on them.

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