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Like debt? Attend college in these U.S. states

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(MoneyWatch) Students who graduated from college in 2011 left school with average loan debt of $26,600, a 5 percent increase from the previous year, according to a new study by the Project on Student Debt at The Institute for College Access & Success.

Two-thirds of college students graduate with debt, with the vast majority of that debt coming from federal student loans. About a fifth of student debt comes from private college loans, which lack the protections that federal students loans offer. 

In the survey, the average debt level varied by state. New Hampshire earned the dubious honor of graduating students with the highest debt load. Utah graduates had the least amount of debt.

10 highest debt states

  1. New Hampshire, $32,440
  2. Pennsylvania, $29,959
  3. Minnesota, $29,793
  4. Rhode Island $29,097
  5. Connecticut, $28,783
  6. Iowa, $28,753
  7. Ohio, $28,683
  8. Vermont, $28,273
  9. District of Columbia, $28,241
  10. New Jersey, $27,610

10 lowest-Debt states

  1. Utah, $17,227
  2. Hawaii, $17,447
  3. California, $18,879
  4. Arizona, $19,950
  5. Nevada, $19,954
  6. Tennessee, $20,703
  7. North Carolina, $20,800
  8. Oklahoma, $20,897
  9. Texas, $22,140
  10. Washington, $22,244

Student debt levels at individual colleges

The high-debt states are concentrated primarily in the Northeast and Midwest, while states with lower debt are mostly in the West and South. The institute suggests that these reported debt figures are artificially low because they are based on data from only half of all public and private nonprofit colleges and universities. 

While state statistics are interesting, what really matters is the kind of debt load that students are leaving with at individual schools. These figures can vary dramatically. In the study, the average debt at 1,057 institutions ranged from $3,000 to $55,250.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education doesn't collect college-level information about debt at graduation. That needs to change.

When evaluating a school, be sure to ask what the average college debt load is for graduates. If you don't get a straight answer, be wary.

In my next post, I'll share the names of institutions that the report identifies as having particularly high and low student debt loads.