Rising education costs are leading students to take on more student loan debt than ever before
(Note: A chart listing the average student loan debt at America’s 100 best colleges appears at the end of this article. Click here to jump straight to it.)
The rising cost of higher education is presenting challenges for many students, especially those who wish to attend some of the best schools in the U.S. Getting a college degree doesn’t just involve a time and effort commitment. It also involves a significant financial commitment that lasts long past graduation.
That financial commitment often means taking out student loans, whether it be a federal loan through the U.S. Department of Education, or a private loan through a bank or other lender. The federal government is the largest originator of student loans in the U.S., and it seems that the cost of college is directly related to how the individual school ranks. The better the school, the more expensive it can be.
How much student loan debt can you expect at a U.S. college?
According to LendEDU’s annual student loan debt report, almost 60% of graduates from the Class of 2017 who attended a non-profit, four-year college had student loan debt when they graduated, with an average debt of $28,288. Even with students with no loan balance factored in, the average student has $16,723 in debt—before they get their first post-college job. Students with degrees in fields such as history, journalism, and other humanities tend to pursue careers that pay far less than their STEM counterparts, so they will likely have more trouble paying off their student loan debt.
Students who attended public schools typically have less debt than those in private colleges, but not by much. Students from public colleges carried over $26,000 in debt, with students from private carrying $31,665.
Not every school’s graduates accrue tens of thousands in student loan debt. Graduates of Bethel College in Indiana, for example, held an average of $5,633 in student loans. At the other end of the scale, students at The New School College of Performing Arts in New York City took out an average of $77,353.
Among state averages, the Class of 2017 attending school in Utah had the lowest average student loan debt at $18,425. Conversely, students in Pennsylvania were carrying the most debt, with an average debt of $35,185 in the state.
Nationwide, among the 250 colleges with the highest amount of debt, over 80 percent were private schools. Of the 250 schools with the lowest debt, over half were public colleges. The financial commitment, even for in-state public college students, is significant.
What about the price of other college expenses?
When many people think of the cost of attending college, they consider the cost of tuition. While tuition is a large part of it, there are many more expenses associated with college, like room and board. Whether a student lives in a dorm on a cafeteria meal plan or in an off-campus apartment buying groceries, there will be major costs to consider.
Textbooks and other school supplies are also costly. Paying over $100 or more for a book to be used for only one semester is the norm. Many colleges and courses have fees for everything from labs to activities and transportation to and from class.
Which colleges provide the most bang for your buck?
In terms of benefits versus cost, here there are 10 schools in the U.S. that offer big returns for your money, according to LendEDU’s College Risk-Reward Indicator:
College of the Ozarks
Located in scenic Missouri, College of the Ozarks is ranked #1 in the country. The average student graduates with only $374 in student loan debt. Why so low? Students agree to work at the school to help pay for their education instead of incurring debt.
Princeton, an Ivy League college founded in 1746 and located in New Jersey, is also considered one of the best in the nation. Students graduate with about $1,600 in student loan debt and an expected early career salary of $69,800. Most students attending Princeton either get parental help or are stellar academic achievers.
Another Ivy League school, Yale University students graduate with less than $2,000 in student debt and make an average of about $66,800 a year after they graduate.
Newman University is a smaller private Catholic school in Kansas. Its students finish school with about $1,676 in student loan debt, but they can expect a starting salary of about $46,500.
Webb Institute, located in Glen Cove, N.Y., is one of the top schools in the country for those interested in a double degree in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. It’s the only program Webb offers, and all students attend on a full scholarship. As a result, graduates have a student loan balance averaging just $2,850, with an expected starting salary of almost $71,000.
Paul Quinn College
Just south of downtown Dallas, Texas, is Paul Quinn College, a private school affiliated with the African Methodist Episcopal Church. It’s an urban work college that boasts a strong, diverse student body. Students who graduate from Paul Quinn can expect to earn about $41,000 starting out, with a student loan balance of about $2,250.
Harvard, located near Boston, is another Ivy League school that has a long and storied history—and a low average student loan balance of only $3,841. Expected salary for a Harvard graduate is about $69,200.
Alabama’s Troy University, founded in 1887, is also known for having some of the best programs in the country for undergraduates. The average student loan debt at Troy is $2,464, with a starting expected salary for graduates of $42,600.
The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art is located in the Manhattan borough of New York City. It’s a private college founded in 1859, and its average student loan debt is $3,844, with a starting salary of $63,900, which is boosted in part by its programs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
Location in Silicon Valley, California’s Stanford University has stellar research facilities—and a low average student loan debt of only $4,617. The average starting salary for a Stanford graduate is about $73,300.
What are some ways to minimize student loan debt?
Even if you’re not planning to attend one of the schools above, you can still avoid astronomical student loan debt. In fact, there are several ways you can significantly decrease or even eliminate the need for student loans:
Before you take out a loan, you should look into grants. There are federal grants available each year to students with financial need. The amount of you need is determined by your FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid that complies data into a Student Aid Report. It takes your finances into account. If you’re a dependent student, it accounts for your parents’ situation as well.
The college you apply to uses FAFSA to determine a financial aid package for you that often includes federal grants that you won’t ever have to pay back.
There are other grants available as well. If you’re going into nursing, for example, you could get a grant that pays off your loans completely after you graduate. In return, you would agree to work in an area considered to have a critical shortage of health professionals.
If you’re a veteran of military service in Iraq or Afghanistan, you can also get a grant to help pay for your school—even if you’re already using your GI Bill funds. Examples of other targeted grants include those for students going into infertility research and public criminal defense, or becoming state prosecutors.
Scholarships are much like grants in that you won’t have to pay back the money. Where they differ is in their criteria for eligibility. Whereas a grant is generally based solely on financial need, a scholarship is usually based upon achievement, interests, or membership of a specific demographic.
There are thousands of scholarships offered each year. Some are geared toward minority students or those coming from a specific city or state. Others are offered to those with high grade point averages or who show leadership potential in an area such as community service or a particular subject matter.
In order to get a scholarship, you’ll need to find one that you qualify for and apply. The programs are competitive, so you’ll want to get your application package in early, regardless of the scholarships you’re applying to.
Parent PLUS Loans
If you still have a funding gap but can’t afford or don’t want a loan, you could look into a Parents PLUS loan. It’s a federal offering that allows your parents to take out a loan for your education. They’re responsible for repaying the loan, but the money is used for your education. Your parents will need steady income, good credit, and U.S. citizenship or permanent legal residence to apply for a PLUS loan.
Budgeting and Saving
Regardless of how you end up paying for school, chances are good that you’ll need to get very familiar with making a budget for your expenses each month, saving what you can, and spending wisely. The sooner you learn how to do this, the better off you’ll be — and you could end up having enough to help defray the cost of school.
College isn’t going to get any less expensive. In fact, it’s likely going to continue getting more expensive each year. It becomes more important every year to understand your options for funding your education, and how to meet your needs to the best benefit of your financial situation.
About Our Guest Contributor
Michael Brown is a Research Analyst at LendEDU, a personal finance comparison site based in Hoboken, New Jersey. In his role, Michael uses both survey and publicly available data to identify and analyze emerging personal finance trends, in addition to telling unique stories with original data.
Appendix: Average student loan debt per borrower at America's 100 best colleges