Surprising trends behind soaring student debt

College debt keeps soaring. The average graduate held $28,950 in student loans in 2014 -- a 56% increase over the average loan amount a decade ago, according to a new report. Average debt levels have been growing at twice the rate of inflation over the past decade, and risky private loans now make up roughly one-sixth of the total, the report said.

"The Class of 2014's debt is the highest yet," said Lauren Asher, president of The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), which issued the report. "Students and families need better information and better policies to make college more affordable and debt less burdensome."

However, Asher noted that two factors varied dramatically from state to state and from school to school: whether students needed to borrow to complete college and what their average debt levels were. The average debt recorded by graduates in Delaware ($33,808) was more than 40 percent higher than that in Utah ($18,921). And a whopping 76 percent of New Hampshire graduates borrowed to complete their studies, while less than half of students in Hawaii, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming needed to borrow to graduate.

"The national averages don't tell the whole story," she said. "State and school policies can have a dramatic impact on the average graduate's debt levels."

A variety of factors account for the state-by-state differences, including state policies and grant aid, as well as endowment resources and student demographics, Asher said. However, the school-to-school differences were even more dramatic. Some high-price schools reported relatively low graduate debt levels, while other seemingly low-cost schools left their graduates deeply indebted, she said.

Echoing what many experts have noted in recent years, Asher said some schools with apparently high sticker prices are far more affordable than they appear. Even though the full cost of attending Harvard is nearly $60,000 annually, for example, the average debt of Harvard graduates is far below the norm -- $15,117.

Harvard is among a number of pricey private colleges, including Columbia, Dartmouth, Duke and Georgetown, that have pledged to meet 100 percent of a student's demonstrated need to ensure that their graduates don't leave school with crushing debt.

In conjunction with the report, TICAS created an interactive map that delineates college costs and debt levels by state and school. It also notes what percentage of loans at any given college are federal loans versus private loans. Differentiating them is important because private loans differ in several significant ways that make them far riskier for students.

Federal loans are generally fixed-rate and flexible, allowing a wide array of repayment options and borrower protections, such as the ability to put payments on hold when attending school or unable to work. Private loans are typically variable-rate and have no guaranteed borrower protections. Interest accrues when the student is in school and out, and they have few caps on how high the variable rates can rise.

Any student contemplating college should check out the data before making a choice, Asher said. Also use the target school's "net price calculator" to get a personalized estimate of how much debt you may incur before graduation.

Although not part of this report, Asher added that students also should check a school's graduation rate before borrowing to make sure the investment is likely to result in a diploma. Earning one can boost your job prospects and average earnings, she noted. But some schools graduate just a small fraction of their students.

You can find graduation rates by plugging a target school into the National Center for Education Statistic's College Navigator site. (Click on retention and graduation rates.)

"It may be daunting to graduate with debt," said Asher, "but it is far worse to have debt without a degree."