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PA Ranks High On Student Debt Scale

With annual tuition ranging from $12,000 a year for a four-year public college to as much as $45,000 for a private college, more Pennsylvania students are leaving with more than a diploma — rising debt.

The cost of a four-year public college education in Pennsylvania costs a little more than $12,000, but some students are facing more than $36,000 in debt at graduation.

The state now ranks fourth in the percentage of college graduates with loan debt and third in the average amount of debt per student, according to a survey by the Institute for College Access and Success.

The study found that 70 percent of Pennsylvania graduates had student loan debt in 2012, averaging $31,675 per student. Delaware is the highest debt-per-student state with an average of $33,649 and South Dakota is ranked first in percentage of graduates with loan debt at 78 percent of students in the red.

Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, said the type of college you attend determines your debt levels.

“Pennsylvania certainly does have much higher than average debt and a higher than average share of students graduating with loans,” she said. “One of the reasons may be that a greater share of students in Pennsylvania graduate from nonprofit (private) colleges, rather than public colleges compared to the nation.”

Asher said that nearly half of all Pennsylvania students graduate from private colleges.  

Nationally, 68 percent of graduates left college owing an average of $27,850.

The survey also found that student loan debt jumped 10 percent from 2011 to an estimated $1.2 trillion.

On average, Asher said student debt across the country is rising at a rate of 6 percent every year.

“The costs of college are exceeding both family incomes and available grant aid,” she said. “Family incomes have been stagnating or even declining, in real terms, while the share of the college costs that students and families are expected to pay keeps going up.”.

Advocacy organization Keystone Progress recommends Pennsylvania mimic legislation proposed in Wisconsin. The Higher Ed, Lower Debt Act, introduced in October, would create a Student Loan Refinancing Authority, which would allow students to refinance their loans at a lower interest rate, similar to homeowners and their mortgages.

Asher said this report should be a talking point between students and their families.

“It’s crucial that students and families know that, regardless of these big state and national numbers, their own experience at a given college may not fit the state or national picture,” she said. “Students and families really need to shop around and know that colleges that might look the same on the surface could end up leading to very different debt levels.”

The Erie, PA native has been a fellow in the WESA news department since May 2013. Having earned a bachelor's degree in print journalism from Duquesne University, he is now pursuing an M.A. in multi-media management. Michael describes his career aspiration as "I want to do it all in journalism."
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