It’s graduation season, which means both high school and college grads are probably thinking about the same thing: The cost of a higher education.

These days, seven in 10 college students in Minnesota leave with some form of student debt. And whether it's planning on the front end or waiting for a student loan bill on the back end, finances might be the most stressful thing about higher education. 

Three years ago, the federal government launched a website called College Scorecard and provided public access to all the data behind it, in order to make cost-related information about colleges and universities readily available for students and their parents. For each school, College Scorecard includes five key pieces of data: costs, graduation rate, loan default rate, average amount borrowed, and employment.

We pulled some of that data for the most popular institutions for Minnesota's high school graduates. The top 15 schools, according to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, are generally ones in Minnesota, but universities in Wisconsin, North Dakota and Iowa also make the list.

Most of these are four-year public institutions,with a few exceptions: The University of St. Thomas is a private nonprofit, and Anoka-Ramsey, Normandale, Century College and St. Cloud Technical College are two-year colleges. Many variations in graduation rates and median debt can fall along these lines, so it’s important to note the differences in the type of institution.

Among those students who graduate, it is common to leave with at least a few grand in debt. 

Median student loan debt at these 15 schools ranges from $13,250 at St. Cloud Technical College up to $26,500 at University of St. Thomas, according to the latest College Scorecard data.

We've also calculated what that debt would be per year of education (although this assumes graduating in either four or two years, depending on the school, which, as you'll see later in this article, doesn't always happen).

According to the latest data available, here's where the popular schools stand. 

Data from the Institute for College Acccess and Success, which has been tracking this since long before College Scorecard rolled out, shows that median debt has increased by at least 50 percent over the past decade at Minnesota's most popular schools. And it's climbed especially fast at Winona State.

Here are the schools in our list with the greatest 10-year change in the amount of debt.


A key question is whether a student can afford to pay back that debt once he or she is in the work force. Ideally, a student would compare his or her expected debt with the median annual earnings for their intended occupation (You can get that at the Bureau of Labor Statistics website).

The College Scorecard data, however, only lets us get a birds-eye view, with median debt and future median earnings summarized for all students.

A decade after graduation, the median annual earnings for those with a degree from these schools ranges from $35,000 to more than $54,000. The average annual full-time earnings of a high school graduate in the United States is roughly $34,000, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Comparing the debt to earnings shows, for example, that the median debt for a University of Minnesota-Duluth graduate represents about 58 percent of the median annual earnings they can expect 10 years down the road.

It's worth noting that these figures represent federal student loans only. Though it's a much riskier way to finance education, some students use private bank loans to pay for college, which would not be represented here.

There are typically differences in the type of student attracted by each of these institutions, which in turn, would affect the median debt amounts.

Enrollees age 25 and older are considered “non-traditional” students -- and they're much more likely to attend a community college. At Century, St. Cloud Tech, Normandale and Anoka-Ramsey, more than 30 percent of undergrads are 25 or older. At St. Thomas or UMD, older students make up only five percent of undergrads. 

Community colleges also tend to be more racially diverse (sometimes upwards of 40 percent are minority members), although 29 percent of undergraduates at U of M-Twin Cities are minorities. Only 12 percent of students at NDSU, Winona State and UMD are minorities. For comparison, Minnesota as a whole is 19 percent minority.

Winona State, at the top here, also has an above-average share of students who are first-generation college students. While the state average hovers around 26 percent of a college's enrollment, 43 percent of Winona's undergrads are first-generation, meaning neither of the student's parents attended college.

We’ve chosen to leave out each college’s “sticker price” for tuition, however, since the actual price paid can vary quite a bit depending on the student and their family’s income or a student’s academic standing.

At some colleges and universities, the percentage of attending undergrads who qualify for Pell Grants – which means the student comes from a household earning $40,000 or less annually – is higher than others. This is the higher-education proxy for identifying low-income students. Pell Grants are federal financial aid that the student doesn't have to pay back.

This can be read two ways: Either low-income students choose community colleges more often because they are usually less expensive, or low-income students aren't being admitted to four-year colleges as often.

It’s important to note, however, that not all students graduate from their chosen school. Rates of completion within six years (for a four-year school) or four years (for a two-year school) can vary greatly. One of the most financially vulnerable populations of students are those who take out loans but do not finish their degree. Keep in mind that some community college students transfer to a four-year college instead of graduating from their first school. Nationally, 43 percent of students graduate from their chosen institution "on time."

Are students repaying their loans? After three years, most four-year schools have a low percentage of graduates who haven’t started paying their federal student loans. A third of community college graduates, however, are struggling to pay their loans -- a figure that is consistent with the national average.

Are you curious about a school not listed here? We recommend both the College Scorecard website as well as news nonprofit ProPublica's "Debt by Degrees" database, which uses a wider swath of the College Scorecard data to find trends.

Data Drop is a weekly feature that uses data analysis and visualizations to explain, surprise, inform and entertain readers on topics relevant to Minnesotans. Do you have an idea you'd like us to explore? Contact MaryJo Webster.