States With the Most (and Least) Student Debt

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Columbus, Ohio beyond The Ohio State University
Source: Thinkstock

10. Ohio
> Avg. debt at graduation: $19,495
> Pct. of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 26.8% (17th lowest)
> Median household income, ages 25-44: $56,786 (21st lowest)
> Avg. debt as share of median household income: 34.3% (7th highest)

At an average of nearly $20,000 per student, the typical debt for students graduating from colleges and universities in Ohio is 10th highest of all states. Because debt per student includes all students, including those who did not take loans, the relatively high proportion of recent state graduates who needed to borrow largely explains the high per-student debt. And the average debt among only those students who borrowed is even higher. Approximately two-thirds of college students in Ohio graduated with debt, in the top 10 compared with other states. The typical debt at graduation among only students who borrowed is $30,239, ninth highest in the nation.

West Virginia University
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9. West Virginia
> Avg. debt at graduation: $19,520
> Pct. of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 19.6% (2nd lowest)
> Median household income, ages 25-44: $49,624 (6th lowest)
> Avg. debt as share of median household income: 39.3% (2nd highest)

Students in West Virginia graduate college with $19,520 in debt on average, more than in most states. West Virginia is also one of the poorest states in the country, and the average student debt load amounts to 39% of the median household income of working-age adults between the ages of 25 and 44, a larger share than in any state other than Mississippi. For many students in the state, post-college earnings are not enough to offset the financial burden brought on by student loans. An estimated 16.2% of graduates with outstanding student loans in West Virginia default on their debt within two years of leaving school, the second largest share of any state.

Harvard, Boston, Massachusetts
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8. Massachusetts
> Avg. debt at graduation: $19,854
> Pct. of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 41.5% (the highest)
> Median household income, ages 25-44: $80,184 (the highest)
> Avg. debt as share of median household income: 24.8% (18th lowest)

The average Massachusetts college student leaves school with roughly $20,000 in student debt, among the most of any state. One partial explanation may be the high cost of tuition in the state. According to the College Board, tuition at an average four-year public university in the state is $12,280, the eighth highest in the country.

While Massachusetts has some of the more expensive colleges in the country, it is a worthwhile investment for many students. Graduates of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology earn more on average than graduates of nearly any other school in the country. The median household income for those ages 25 to 44 in Massachusetts of $80,184 is the second highest of any state. Just 6.1% of indebted graduates in the state default on their student loans within two years of leaving school, the smallest share nationwide.

Lawrence University, Appleton Wisconsin
Source: lawrence.edu

7. Wisconsin
> Avg. debt at graduation: $19,881
> Pct. of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 28.4% (24th lowest)
> Median household income, ages 25-44: $61,669 (21st highest)
> Avg. debt as share of median household income: 32.2% (11th highest)

Students of private universities tend to graduate with substantially more debt than students of public colleges. Nine of the 10 Wisconsin colleges and universities where students graduate with the most debt are private institutions. The average graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, a public school, has $26,960 in student debt, well above the national average. Students of the University of Wisconsin at River Falls, Stevens Point, Eau Claire, La Crosse, and Madison, on the other hand, all tend to have relatively small student loans at graduation.

Tuition and fees at public four-year universities in Wisconsin rose by 2.3% over the past five years, one of the lowest increases compared with other states. By contrast, tuition and fees grew by an average of 9.4% nationwide over that period.

Providence, Rhode Island 4
Source: Thinkstock

6. Rhode Island
> Avg. debt at graduation: $20,334
> Pct. of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree: 32.7% (13th highest)
> Median household income, ages 25-44: $64,614 (17th highest)
> Avg. debt as share of median household income: 31.5% (13th highest)

Due to several reasons, including discounts for in-state students and the ease of travel, in most states the majority of students are from the state. Rhode Island, which has among the highest average per-student debt in the country, is a notable exception. Less than one in four Rhode Island enrollees in fall 2014 were state natives.

The lower share of local students may explain the high debt burden of Rhode Island college graduates. Out-of-state students attending public universities in the small state pay $15,450 on average more than locals attending these schools.