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Charting College Debt

Anyone who has been following the news recently should be well aware that college debt is quickly becoming one of the most serious problems facing young Americans. College loans recently made headlines by surpassing credit cards as the leading source of debt for Americans, and unlike credit cards, student loan debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy—many of these students will find it haunting them for much of their adult lives. Via Meadia has frequently advised graduating students to look beyond the school’s advertising material and take matters like cost, post-college success rate and debt after graduation into account when choosing a school.

Students looking for more information on those metrics should check out a new infographic at the New York Times that ranks hundreds of colleges by annual tuition and average debt post-graduation. The results are interesting—Eastern Nazarene holds the dubious honor of having the most indebted graduates (average debt $51,336), while Kennesaw State University has the least (average debt $947).

But don’t be frightened too much by the sticker price. Bard College, where I teach, has some of the highest tuition in the country, but students come out with an average debt of $24,311, close to the national average for all schools, including public universities. That is a reasonable level of debt for many grads to carry — though if you are planning to work an entry level position in a non-profit human rights organization based in an expensive city like New York, San Francisco, Boston or Washington, you’d better develop a taste for ramen.

Naturally, there is more to the college choice process than one chart can convey, and picking a school that is a good fit academically remains important. Nonetheless, high school students would do well to spend at least a few minutes with the information presented here—particularly before sending out those applications.

Parents, you should sit down with your kids heading toward or in college and help them understand just what these different debt levels will mean. Many young people have no idea how much money they can expect to make after college, what their bills will be — and what a huge whack is going to be taken out of their paychecks by various levels of government.

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  • Jim.

    Has anyone done some estimates as to what the disposable-income assumptions are for the modern middle class? It would be interesting to see some quantification of the damage college loan payments do to the Middle Class in this country. This has to have gotten worse over time.

  • Kansas Scott

    We have a child completing her junior year in high school and is deep into the exasperating college search. We have made it clear to her (and her older siblings) that we can pay the equivalent of in-state tuition at one of our state universities. Any amount over that for out-of-state or private colleges must be met with scholarships or savings. We have taken student loans off of the table for undergraduate.

    It’s not that we’re wonderful just that there are very few university names on an undergraduate degree that justify limiting the options of what should be a time of exploration after graduation. The names that might justify debt are actually some of the best at finding ways to make their education affordable depending on a student’s circumstances.

    So far our kids have not balked at avoiding debt. The one who has graduated is strengthening the case for maintaining debt-free flexibility by taking a job in China that she couldn’t have afforded if she was carrying the weight of needless debt.

  • Kenny

    Funny, we allow the kiddies to vote when they’re 18. But at that age, many of even the supposed bright ones can’t quite understand what the debt they are incurring means down the road.

    No wonder the kiddies tend to vote Democratic — it feels good to squander money when you don’t actually understand that debt has to be paid back eventually.

  • MJB

    I suspect that like mortgages, tuition debt unless paid voluntarily is uncollectable. I also think that a bankruptcy option should be considered along with a payback requirement for some portion of the default amount from the institutions that collected it in the first place under the legal theory of merchantability. How’s that for an idea for the Plaintiff’s bar?

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