Pennsylvania public colleges

Why do grads of Pennsylvania public colleges face steeper debt loads?

Students who needed to borrow money to attend a public college in Pennsylvania, on average, graduated last year with one of the heaviest debt loads in the nation.

The national average amount of student debt for the class of 2014 hit $28, 950, which, according to the Institute for College Access & Success in Oakland, Calif., is more than double the rate of inflation from 2004 to 2014.

But Pennsylvania public colleges and universities exacted an even higher toll on their graduates last year — an average $33, 264 in student debt, which might have something to do with tuition for Pennsylvania public colleges being more expensive than in other states and students here receiving less grant money than is offered by public colleges elsewhere.

Depending on which Pennsylvania college a student chose to attend, the debt could have even surpassed the average for the state.

With an average 2014 student debt of $37, 157, the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford topped the list of Pennsylvania colleges whose graduates started their working lives with the highest debt burden. Pennsylvania State University was not too far behind with an average of $36, 935.

“There is a lot to be concerned about when it comes to bachelor degree colleges in Pennsylvania, ” said Debbie Cochrane, research director for the Institute for College Access & Success and author of the report.

“Pennsylvania stands out in a few ways, ” she said. “Graduates from public colleges in Pennsylvania have higher debt than graduates from nonprofit colleges.

PG graphic: Most student loan debt
(Click image for larger version)

Although for-profit universities grab the headlines — typically for pushing students to take on financial commitments they can’t afford — some of the nation’s top institutions of higher learning use the nonprofit model. Not-for-profit institutions commit to providing a solid education for their students and returning excess funds back to university coffers.

Ms. Cochrane said public colleges are usually funded in part by the state. Nonprofit colleges, such as Drexel University and Villanova University, are not as heavily subsidized by the state.

“It’s unusual because public universities tend to have lower tuition costs and that can tend to lead to lower levels of debt, ” Ms. Cochrane said. “In Pennsylvania, public college tuition is much higher than tuition in public colleges nationally and there’s less grant aid available.”

Researchers reported an average of 70 percent of 2014 graduates from Pennsylvania institutions of higher learning financed their college educations with student loans.

Two other states posted higher average student loan debt than Pennsylvania in 2014: New Hampshire at $33, 410 and Delaware at $33, 808.

New Hampshire shares some of the same characteristics as Pennsylvania. Tuition at its public colleges are higher than tuition at its nonprofit colleges. However, students in New Hampshire public colleges receive more grant aid than students in Pennsylvania.

Nonprofit colleges in Delaware did not provide data for this report.

State averages for debt at graduation ranged from $18, 900 in Utah to $33, 800 in Delaware. Over the 10 years that the institute has been tracking average student loan debt levels, average debt at graduation rose 56 percent from $18, 550 to $28, 950, more than double the rate of inflation — 25 percent.

The annual report focuses on how much new graduates owe, but not all students earn the cap and gown. Many of them also have loans. The report points out that former students who don’t graduate are less likely to be paying down their loans than those who did graduate.

At the high debt colleges listed in the report, graduation rates ranged from 16 to 86 percent. Low-debt colleges reported graduation rates ranging from 22 to 97 percent.

“Graduation rates vary quite a bit across all colleges, not just those that were part of our analysis for student debt and the Class of 2014 or those that are on our high/low debt lists, ” Ms. Cochrane said.

Income-driven repayment plans have been widely available for federal student loan borrowers since 2009. These plans cap payments based on borrower’s income and family size, and forgive any remaining debt after 20 or 25 years of payments.

“Despite rising debt levels, a college degree is still the best path to a job and decent pay, ” Ms. Cochran said. “For students who don’t graduate, loans are much harder to repay. Even a small amount of debt can be burdensome if you have limited job options.”

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