Class of 2011 sets debt record

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 18, 2012 - 11:13 PM

Minnesota college students are among nation's most indebted.

College debt has reached another record, and Minnesota graduates are deep in the red.

The class of 2011 finished with an average load of $26,600, up 5 percent from the year before, a new report shows. That percentage rise is on par with previous years.

Minnesota four-year college graduates were among the nation's most indebted, according to a California nonprofit, the Institute for College Access and Success. Students graduating from Minnesota's public and private nonprofit universities who borrowed carried an average of $29,800 in student loans -- third-highest in the country.

Thursday's report is the latest to document the steady swelling of student loan debt that has provoked protests from parents and policymakers. The findings probably understate actual averages because the report does not include data from pricey for-profit schools.

Alexandra Griffin will graduate in May from Winona State University with a "grand total" of student loan debt of about $50,000, plus $8,000 in credit card debt.

"The pressure is crippling," she said, referring to her coming job search. "I won't be buying a house, attending graduate school or buying a new car any time soon."

Griffin's own total beats the average at Winona State, where 76 percent of 2011 graduates took out student loans. Of those, the average debt was $31,275, highest among the state's public schools.

As president of Winona's student senate, Griffin has delved into the budget of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. She believes that student debt will continue to rise as long as state funding for public higher education keeps falling.

Minnesotans likely to repay

Statewide, about 71 percent of graduates took out student loans, according to Thursday's report, a number that ranks fifth highest in the nation.

But Minnesota students are more likely to repay those loans, said Tricia Grimes, a policy analyst at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. The state's colleges and universities have a three-year default rate of 9 percent, compared to 13.4 percent nationally, recent federal data show.

Grimes suspects that debt is higher in Minnesota -- and the Midwest, generally, the report finds -- partly because the state has a bigger share of private, nonprofit colleges, which tend to sport a bigger sticker price. Also, "one of the things that helps students pay for college is the Minnesota State Grant Program, which has not kept up with inflation or college costs," she said.

Two Minnesota schools made the report's list of "high-debt" colleges. Graduates of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD) who took out loans left with an average debt of $43,035. Those graduating from the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth had an average of $41,282.

The average debt of MCAD graduates has actually been declining in recent years. Its 2010 number, for example, was $44,385.

"Our president's number one priority right now is increasing scholarship support," said spokesman Rob Davis. The college froze tuition the year he took office. Davis said that MCAD beats other arts schools across the country when it comes to its four-year graduation rate, "which has an impact on your debt load."

Schools missing from the list

Colleges and universities voluntarily report their data, and the mix of schools changes from year to year. The report includes numbers from less than 2 percent of the nation's for-profits, where graduates "borrowed 45 percent more" than those at other types of four-year schools, the report says.

Minnesota schools that apparently did not report their graduates' student debt include the Dunwoody College of Technology, Metropolitan State University and Augsburg College. Debt figures for the College of St. Benedict and St. John's University have been missing for at least two years.

"While we cannot say why colleges that voluntarily reported debt data in the past chose to stop reporting," the report says, "it underscores the limitations of voluntarily reported data and the need for the Education Department to collect this data for all colleges."

Despite the growing debt that college students are taking on, a college degree is still worth it, the report's authors argue. The unemployment rate for young people with just a high school degree was 19.1 percent in 2011, "more than double the rate for young college graduates," the report says.

"Four-year college graduates are experiencing far less unemployment and earning higher salaries than their counterparts with only a high school education."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168 Twitter: @ByJenna

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  • $29,800

    Average debt load for Minnesota college graduates in 2011 who had student loans, the third-highest average in the nation.

    $43,035

    Average debt load for 2011 graduates of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, one of two "high-debt" Minnesota colleges.

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