Student loan debt around the country

The New York Times has excellent coverage with some great graphics today detailing the student loan debt burden for private and public colleges across America.

From A Generation Hobbled by the Soaring Cost of College:

Kelsey Griffith graduates on Sunday from Ohio Northern University. To start paying off her $120,000 in student debt, she is already working two restaurant jobs and will soon give up her apartment here to live with her parents. Her mother, who co-signed on the loans, is taking out a life insurance policy on her daughter.

That’s an extreme number, but apparently fairly common. It’s tempting to blame Griffith and other students like her — they’re the ones who took out the loans after all — but I think more blame goes to others: parents, lenders, and colleges. That is simply too high a debt burden for someone to enter the workforce with, a fact which could be hard for a high school graduate to grasp fully if all the adults around are enabling the loans.

I particularly like the NYT’s interactive graphic that allows for a variety of searches and sorts. All the info I’m going to post below comes from that graphic.

Here in Savannah, Armstrong students in 2010 graduated with an average debt of $19,000, which was higher than I expected it to be. That’s a high but still doable number for someone entering almost any profession (assuming, of course, that there are jobs to be had). Still, unless the graduate bites the bullet early and pays down the principal quickly, that debt could gnaw at the bank account for decades.

Savannah College of Art and Design graduates have an average debt of about $39,000, which is obviously even more problematic. SCAD students — like those at other private schools — might be more likely to have ongoing family support than public university students. But that’s a massive amount of money by any measure — and it’s the average. I know SCAD graduates with far more debt than that, and I honestly don’t know how some could ever pay it back.

Still, it’s worth noting that degrees are valuable: college graduates on average make far more money in their lifetimes than those who never finish college.

But in a recent ranking of “return on investment”, SCAD ranked last in the country in “college education value”, but it was joined by 3 other private art and design schools in the bottom 50. Given the diversity of degrees offered, the widespread financial aid, and the varying wealth of parents, I don’t put too much stock in the rankings; for example, I have known architecture students who are getting ample aid and have gone straight into good-paying jobs. Such stories are common at SCAD.

But for someone graduating with tens of thousands of dollars in debt and facing slim job prospects, the situation is pretty grim.

I should also note that while SCAD came in at 1248 on that return on investment list, Armstrong was only 911, with Georgia Southern and Georgia College and State University even lower.

I had $7500 in student debt when I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, which would be about $15,000 in today’s dollars. So I was close to the level of the average Armstrong student — and I paid all of my debt off within two years. (I hate paying interest. I even paid off my house in 13 years.)

But would I have been able to pay off $15,000 today as easily as I paid off $7500 years ago? I doubt it — I don’t see that starting wages have increased at the same pace as inflation.

Btw, I don’t see that Savannah State University data is included in the NYT’s graphic.

I’m glad that there’s so much coverage and discussion of the college debt burden these days. Maybe some high school graduates and their families will rethink their financial plans and work harder to avoid the debt.

And maybe we’ll figure out some public policy approaches to prevent widespread, destabilizing defaults.