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Dip in debt offers hope for Minnesota's graduates

  • Article by: Maura Lerner
  • Star Tribune
  • July 15, 2014 - 5:52 AM

For the first time in years, the median student debt for Minnesota college graduates fell slightly in 2013, amid signs that student borrowing may be starting to level off after decades of record-breaking increases.

The Minnesota Office of Higher Education reported Monday that ­students graduating with a bachelor’s degree had a median debt of $27,300 last year, down from $27,517 in 2012.

Although student debt, which has tripled nationwide in the last ten years, continues to be a major worry for Minnesota students and families, the numbers may offer a glimmer of hope.

The report found that the total dollar amount of student loans in Minnesota declined from $1.445 billion in 2011 to $1.36 billion in 2013.

It was the first drop since the state started tracking the numbers in 1987, said Tricia Grimes, a policy analyst who ­co-authored the report.

“It’s hard to know why that’s happening,” said Grimes. “I have a hunch that it has to do with people getting a little bit more leery (about) taking on debt.”

It could also mean, however, that fewer students are earning bachelor’s degrees, she cautioned.

The report, Cumulative Student Loan Debt in Minnesota 2011-2013, shows that 70 percent of Minnesotans ­borrow money to pay for college, and that they graduate with higher debt than the national average. But they’re also better at paying off their loans, with one of the lowest default rates (11 percent) in the nation.

“It may be difficult to make their student loan payments, but they are making them,” Grimes said.

Nationwide, it appears that fewer students are borrowing money for college, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com, a website about student debt. “The most likely explanation is the impact of the economic recovery,” he said. “As the economy continues to improve, the number of borrowers will continue to decrease.”

But students who do need financial aid, he said, are likely fall deeper in debt. “Individual colleges, especially higher-cost colleges, will confirm a similar phenomenon,” he said, “with fewer students borrowing but those who borrow, borrowing more.”

Thomas Mortenson, a higher education policy analyst, said he was puzzled by the findings, noting “the price of higher education keeps going up.” But if student debt is starting to drop, he said, it may simply reflect the fact that low-income students are steering away from four-year colleges. “They’re desperately trying to avoid student debt,” said Mortenson, of the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. “Maybe that’s one of the things you’re going to see in the aggregate data, because the poor aren’t there anymore.”

The Minnesota report showed that student debt varies dramatically among different schools, with students at for-profit colleges wracking up the highest average debt ($47,500) in 2013.

It also varies sharply by type of degree. The median debt for an associate degree, for example, was $19,300 last year; and $138,400 for a professional degree, such as medicine or dentistry.

 

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384

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