Minnesota college students have long been marked as some of the nation's most indebted. Turns out it's even worse than we knew.
The most complete picture of student loan debt in the state shows that 2010 graduates who borrowed had an average load of $29,800.
That total beats a previous estimate, probably because for the first time the number includes for-profit colleges. Their graduates borrowed more — $45,100, on average.
The new report from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education is part of a national push for better information about college graduates' growing debt. Minnesota's numbers are some of the most complete in the country, experts say.
The report also gives a first look at student loan debt for two-year degree earners. There, too, graduates of for-profit schools bore more debt, about $26,900, compared with $14,700 at public two-year colleges.
Together with default rates, which indicate whether graduates are paying back that debt, the data illustrate the burden and spotlight colleges where students are most indebted.
Students at the Art Institutes International Minnesota left with the state's biggest debt loads for two- and four-year degrees. Nine out of 10 of its associate-degree recipients had debt, with an average of $36,100. The average for bachelor's degrees: $55,200.
Julia Fristedt said she knew that attending the Art Institutes would be pricey and that the for-profit school's agenda "is not purely education." But she believed it would be worth it for the small class sizes and downtown Minneapolis campus, she said.
This week, Fristedt is brushing up and binding her portfolio. She will graduate with an interior-design degree and about $32,000 in student loan debt. Her parents took out another $20,000 in federal parent PLUS loans, she said. (Parents' loans are not included in the state numbers.)
It's a big total, but she feels well-prepared to enter the job market, she said. Just this week, her instructor passed along a job opening that could be a good fit. "That's what I mean about how awesome these teachers are," she said.
'Plenty of holes'
For years, the best look at student debt by state has come from the Project on Student Debt, by the nonprofit Institute for College Access and Success. It found that Minnesota's 2011 graduates who borrowed finished with an average debt load of just less than $29,800, third-highest in the country.
But that report doesn't include for-profit colleges and some other schools. Last year in Minnesota, for example, numbers for Dunwoody College of Technology and Metropolitan State University went missing. The federal government has a new college "scorecard," but its debt numbers include students who dropped out. So colleges with lots of dropouts might look like a better deal than those where most students graduate.
"There are plenty of holes left to fill when it comes to debt data," said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success. "It sounds like Minnesota is taking a step in that direction."
The new report emphasizes default rates alongside debt numbers. While a big share of Minnesotans borrow — and in large amounts — they're also more likely to repay. About 6.9 percent of Minnesota students defaulted on their loans within two years of entering repayment, compared with 9.1 percent nationally.
"While many students may be experiencing difficulty repaying, they seem to be managing it somehow," said Tricia Grimes, policy analyst for the Office of Higher Education.
Minnesota students at for-profit colleges are less likely to default than those at public two-year colleges. Nationally, the reverse is true.
The two-year default rate for students at the Arts Institutes was 8.3 percent, a little higher than the state's average.
In a statement, a spokeswoman said the college's default rate "compares favorably to the … default rate for all higher education institutions in Minnesota, regardless of sector." The Art Institutes International Minnesota, owned by Education Management Corp., has not increased tuition since October 2010, the statement said. "Student debt is a shared concern across all colleges and universities."
Education Management is being sued by the Minnesota attorney general's office, along with the U.S. Department of Justice and a few other states. The 2011 fraud suit alleges that the schools paid incentives to recruiters based on enrolling new students, making the schools ineligible for billions in state and federal financial aid.
One student's struggle
Kira Welle took out a mix of federal and private loans when she started at Winona State University in 2007. It "snowballed from there," she said.
She worked when she could — at a Chrysler dealership, an independent bookstore, the Mall of America over holiday break. She shopped at Goodwill. She culled her grocery cart before checking out. "I'm very frugal," Welle said. "I know how to make things last."
But a year after graduating, she owes about $80,000 — with all the different lenders, she's not quite sure. Welle works at Life Time Fitness and lives with her parents in Eagan. The debt makes her "very, very anxious," but she's not sure of the alternative.
"Seriously, what would I have done if I had not gone to school?" she said. "I think about the papers I've written and the people I've met."
Welle borrowed more than is typical at Winona State. About 70 percent of the 2010 class left with debt, the report says, with a total averaging $27,200. That's below the state average, but highest among the seven state universities of the public Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
The total is "very concerning," said Winona State President Scott Olson. He attributes some of the rise in debt to cuts in state funding. From 2002 to 2012, Winona State lowered the cost of educating a student by 9 percent, after adjusting for inflation, he said. Like other leaders, he's eager to see whether a Legislature-funded two-year tuition freeze for in-state public college undergraduates pauses the steady rise in student debt.
Although Winona State students' debt is higher, just 2.5 percent of its borrowers defaulted on their loans within two years, according to the new report — the smallest share of those seven state universities.
"The fact that we have this very low default rate tells me these students are getting jobs, being successful," Olson said. "In a sense, the debt was a good investment."