Average debt facing college graduates nationally rose 5 percent to $26,600 last year, with Pennsylvania's total second highest among the states, according to a new report that found indebtedness varied widely even among schools with similar tuition rates.
The average student loan debt increase across the country, $1,350, is roughly the same rate of increase as seen the past few years, according to the report released today from the Project on Student Debt at The Institute for College Access and Success in Oakland, Calif.
Two-thirds of the Class of 2011 carried loans, with private debt accounting for a fifth of the dollar total.
The U.S. Department of Education does not collect average debt rates among graduating seniors at individual colleges, so the national averages are based on voluntary responses from 1,057 public and private nonprofit schools, according to the report's authors. Given the low response rate from for-profit schools, they were not included in the report, although the Institute says government data show students at those institutions tend to borrow more.
Students graduating from Pennsylvania colleges with a bachelor's degree in 2010-11 left campus with $29,959 on average in loans, a sum surpassed only by New Hampshire's $32,440 total. Seventy percent of graduates in this state carried debt.
The state whose graduates had the least debt was Utah at $17,227, followed by Hawaii at $17,447.
The Institute, a nonprofit research and advocacy group promoting college access and affordability, said debt levels are influenced campus-to-campus not only by tuition and fees but by such factors as availability of need-based institutional and government assistance, campus financial aid policies and cost-of-living expenses in a given area.
"I think it's always striking how much variation there is among the states and colleges and that it's not just related to tuition," said Matthew Reed, the report's principal author. "When students and families are looking at colleges, it's important to look beyond tuition and fees, or the sticker price of attendance, and to consider net price, the full cost of attendance including tuition and fees plus other costs including room and board, minus average grants and scholarships."
The Institute said the recession and state budget cuts to public colleges have accelerated debt increases, but federal Pell grant increases and other gains in government and institutional aid have helped offset that trend.
The report generally identified high-debt public colleges as those with debt loads ranging from $31,900 to $46,700 and high-debt private colleges as those with totals ranging from $40,600 to $46,700. At the same time, some low-debt private and public campuses had average debt totals ranging from $3,000 to $9,750.
Even schools that had the same published tuition prices had sharply different average debt loads. To illustrate the point, the Institute cited two Pennsylvania schools -- Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Clarion University, both part of the State System of Higher Education.
About 40 percent of students at both universities are from low-income households, a group especially prone to borrowing, but at IUP undergraduates graduating in 2011 had average loan debt totaling $32,410, while graduates that same year from Clarion left with average debt of $3,815.
Eighty-three percent of IUP's graduates carried debt, compared to 55 percent of Clarion's graduates in 2011, the report said.
Michelle Fryling, an IUP spokeswoman, was not sure why the totals at her school were so much higher, although she said one factor may be that IUP conscientiously reports all forms of federal and private debt.
"We continue to worry about the debt load of our students. We counsel them. We have financial literacy workshops to help them (maintain) a manageable amount of debt," she said. "We also are working very diligently to get more scholarships for students."
At Clarion, spokesman David Love said in general, "We feel our student debt load is lower than other schools," but he added that without knowing more about data used in the report Clarion could not comment about the specific figure cited.
The Institute said IUP was among three Pennsylvania universities that made the Institute's list of 20 high-debt public colleges. The other Pennsylvania schools were Temple University at $32,766 in average debt and Penn State University, where main campus debt among graduates averaged $33,530.
Three private campuses in this state were on the Institute's list of 20 high-debt private colleges, including Robert Morris University at $42,477; La Salle University at $40,615, and Widener University's main campus at $44,430.
In Pittsburgh, the University of Pittsburgh had debt load among graduates averaging $26,612, according to the report. Carnegie Mellon University had $29,303 in average debt. Debt load figures were not available in the report for Carlow, Chatham and Duquesne universities.
Among Western Pennsylvania's four other state-owned universities, average debt load for 2011 graduates was $24,251 at California University of Pennsylvania; $6,019 at Edinboro University and $28,810 at Slippery Rock University, according to the report.
Bill Schackner: email@example.com or 412-263-1977.