Student Debt Continued to Rise in 2011

Borrowers in the class of 2011 graduated from college owing $26,600, on average.

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Erasing debt on notepad.
Erasing debt on notepad.

For seven years running, the Project on Student Debt, an initiative of The Institute for College Access and Success, has compiled its invaluable report on student debt. The most recent report, "Student Debt and the Class of 2011," was released on October 18 and, as usual, it is worth pondering. Here are a few highlights.

• Perhaps the least surprising is the fact that student debt levels continued to grow. Two thirds of college seniors who graduated from public and private nonprofit four year colleges in 2011 had student debt. The average debt for those with loans was $26,600, up 5 percent from the average debt for those with loans in 2010 ($25,250). This increase in one year is unsettling to the Student Loan Ranger—and about the same as it has been the last few years.

[Read more about rising student loan debt.]

• It's important to note that for-profit colleges receive a big incomplete. They aren't included because so few of them choose to report the necessary student debt data, but Department of Education surveys indicate that their graduates are much more likely to borrow—and that they borrow significantly more—than graduates of public and private nonprofit colleges. And, as the Student Loan Ranger highlighted in a review of the recently-released Harkin Report, some for-profit colleges are badly failing their students.

To the Student Loan Ranger, this lack of transparency about the cost of colleges and outcomes is particularly disturbing because it reduces the competitive pressure on institutions of higher education and abets the continuing rise in tuition that forces students to borrow.

A variety of legislative and agency initiatives are taking this on, including Sen. Al Franken's Understanding the True Cost of College Act, Sens. Dick Durbin and Tom Harkin's Know Before You Owe Act, and the Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center, but slowing or even reversing the growth in tuition remains a key component of reducing the amounts students need to borrow for college.

• The report also highlights another concern, given the inherent riskiness of private student loans. The Student Loan Ranger's vote for most-distressing fact is that about one fifth of the graduates' debt is private loans.

While outdated federal loan limits mean that some undergraduates have to turn to private loans (especially those with six-figure debt), we also know that not all undergraduates exhaust their annual eligibility for federal loans before taking out private loans, and some don't apply for federal financial aid at all.

[Get started by filling out the FAFSA.]

• The silver lining here is the enduring value of a college degree. The unemployment rate for college graduates ages 20 to 24—8.8 percent in 2011—is better than the record high of 9.1 percent in 2010. And it's far better than the 19.1 percent unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds with only a high school degree in 2011.

• As usual, the report contains invaluable information for prospective students including lists of low- and high-debt states and colleges. This information is also available in a convenient state-by-state map and even more data (including multi-year and national data) is available at College-InSight.org, also offered by The Institute for College Access and Success. Prospective students and those advising them should take advantage of these free and easy-to-use resources to help offset the general lack of available information.

Anyone concerned about how to manage their educational debt should follow us on Twitter (use #studentdebthelp) to keep up with the latest news, and should sign up for one of our free online webinars, where you will have the unique opportunity to ask the Student Loan Ranger questions directly.

Isaac Bowers is a senior program manager in the Communications and Outreach unit, responsible for Equal Justice Works' educational debt relief initiatives. An expert on educational debt relief, Bowers conducts monthly webinars for a wide range of audiences; advises employers, law schools, and professional organizations; and works with Congress and the Department of Education on federal legislation and regulations. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, he was a fellow at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP in San Francisco. He received his J.D. from New York University School of Law.