The heavy debt U.S. students are amassing to pay for college continues to rise.
Sixty-nine percent of graduating seniors at public and nonprofit private schools in 2013 left with student loans averaging $28,400, according to a new report from the Project on Student Debt at The Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit group focused on making it easier for people to attend college. That represents a two percent increase in graduates' debt load over the previous year, while the percentage of students who borrowed rose one percent.
Debt loads for the average graduate who borrowed to attend school topped $30,000 in six states: New Hampshire, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Minnesota and Connecticut. Only graduates in one state -- New Mexico -- had an average debt load below $20,000.
Students attending schools in western states graduated with the least amount of debt. State universities in the West tend to be far less expensive for residents than many of their peer institutions on the East Coast. Private institutions in the West (outside the Pacific coast) also tend to be lower priced. In addition to New Mexico, states where students graduated with the least debt were (in descending order) California, Nevada, Oklahoma, Arizona, Utah, Hawaii and Wyoming.
While families may find these debt figures depressing, the reality is probably worse, noted Lauren Asher, president of The Institute for College Access and Success. Only 57 percent of public and nonprofit bachelor's degree-granting colleges provided data for the study, representing 83 percent of 2013 graduates in these sectors. Even colleges that provide loan data may understate graduates' debt loads if they are not aware of students' private loans, while the quality of reported data varies widely.
Asked why student debt shot up by at least 10 percent at fully 1 out of 5 schools, Asher said there is no one answer. Financial aid policies can change at individual schools, for instance, while state appropriations to public universities can also affect borrowing.
"Student debt isn't monolithic," she said. "There isn't one number that students are destined to borrow -- how much will vary tremendously from school to school."
The report also singled out schools that produced graduates with high levels of debt. State universities in Pennsylvania are heavily represented on the list, including multiple campuses of Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh.