Minnesota ranks fifth in the nation for student debt, and fourth for its proportion of students shouldering college debt loads.

Seventy percent of Minnesota college students graduated last year with at least some debt. The average debt load for a state college student that year was $30,894.

The latest numbers, released Thursday by the Project for Student Debt, are similar to those in surveys done by Minnesota officials and come as state leaders consider another round of tuition freezes for state colleges and universities.

"I think it's crazy, and I think it's too bad the state of Minnesota doesn't invest more in higher education," said Kari Cooper, 22, who graduated in May from Bemidji State University and is chair of the Minnesota State University Student Association. She said she had $48,000 in student debt.

"Students are coming out of college with this astronomical amount of debt, and it's pushing them back in terms of buying a home, getting married, starting a family," she said.

The national study, issued by the Institute for College Access and Success in Oakland, Calif., said student debt continues to rise nationwide, with most of the high-debt states in the Northeast and Midwest.

Concern about college debt persuaded the Minnesota Legislature to make a deal with the state's public college leaders to freeze tuition at the undergraduate level for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and the University of Minnesota, said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, chair of the higher education finance and policy committee.

"The numbers are appalling," he said. "The data is why we focused all our resources on freezing tuition" and beginning to deal with student debt.

High participation = debt

Minnesota's high college participation rate is one reason for the large amount of student debt here, said Meredith Fergus, manager of financial aid research at the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

She said that a 2012 survey by the U.S. Census showed that Minnesota ranked second in the nation in the percentage of 25- to 44-year-olds who have earned an associate college degree or higher.

"Historically, Minnesota families have understood the value of a higher education, so there is willingness to borrow for that education," said Sandy Connolly, director of communications for the state Office of Higher Education. "Though the debt is high, we also see very low default rates, which indicates there is an ability to pay back student loans."

It comes at a cost, however. Kari Cooper, newly graduated, is working in communications and marketing for a nonprofit agency in northeast Minneapolis called A Chance to Grow. It provides rehabilitation and therapy services for children with developmental disorders. She earns $33,000 a year.

In addition to the cost of food and rent "and everything else you need," she said, she has a $330 monthly payment on her student loan. "There is definitely no room to put aside for a down payment on a home, or heaven forbid my car dies," she said.

In Germany, she said, which she visited when she was in high school, college is free. "If our country values an educated public, then they should fund higher education for sure," she said. Instead, she said, government has been cutting support for higher education and students are paying more of their costs.

Drew Coveyou, 21, communications director for the Minnesota Student Association, the undergraduate student government at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, said he believed the university is "doing something right" to stem the rising problem of student debt.

"We know the university leaders are feeling pressured to lower costs and work on college affordability," he said.

While the Legislature increased funds to higher education in its last session, in previous sessions it spent less, causing tuition to rise, Coveyou said.

The problem of high debt discourages low-income high school students from applying to college because they do not realize they may be eligible for financial aid and scholarships, said Brooke Hanson, manager of college program curriculum and design at College Possible, a nonprofit that helps low-income students gain admission to college and then help them stay in school to earn a degree.

"Getting a college degree ultimately is cheaper than deciding not to go to college," she said. "We know that college graduates stand to earn $1 million more over their working lives than peers without their degrees."

The College of St. Scholastica, a Catholic college in Duluth, is among private schools with the highest average debt in the nation, according to the national study. Its average student debt was $43,113 in 2013.

"It's not new," said Eric Berg, vice president for enrollment management at the college. "We've been on that list for the last five years."

Berg said St. Scholastica enrolls many students from outstate Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin. Forty-three percent of its 461 incoming freshmen this fall were first-generation college students. Most of the time, families don't have the means to pay for college out of pocket, but they see a college education as an investment, he said.

St. Scholastica tries to hold costs down, he said, and is "in the bottom quartile of Minnesota private colleges in total tuition, room and board expenses." He said 97 percent of the students who graduate from St. Scholastica are employed within six months of graduation, and the loan default rate is only 4.7 percent.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who was recently re-elected, helped introduce a bill to let more than half a million Minnesotans refinance their student loans at lower rates.

In an e-mail to the Star Tribune Wednesday, Franken said, "With student debt now surpassing credit card debt in this country, this [latest] report is further evidence that we have a lot of work to do to address the massive debt load that is preventing millions of students from being able to afford a home, a car, or to start a family after they graduate."

Randy Furst • 612-673-4224 Twitter @randyfurst