Iowa Ranks Third in Student Debt

By Diane Heldt, Reporter

In this Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011 photo, University of Northern Iowa students walk between classes on the campus in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The school's handling of sexual abuse allegations against a former music professor has drawn praise from victims' advocates for protecting students but criticism from faculty leaders for a rush to judgment. (AP Photo/Ryan Foley)

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By Adam Carros

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- After making progress last year, Iowa moved up to third in the nation for average student loan debt carried by university and college graduates in 2010, according to an annual national report released Thursday.

Iowa had dropped from second to fourth in the 2010 report (using 2009 debt numbers), but was back up to third place in the 2011 Project on Student Debt report, which is based on the average student loan debt of 2010 graduates.

Iowa’s average student loan debt — for graduates of public universities and private colleges and universities — was $29,598 in 2010, compared to $28,883 in 2009, according to the report. The national average was $25,250 in 2010, a 5 percent increase from the prior year. The report looks at bachelor’s degree recipients at public and private four-year schools.

Iowa did improve when looking at the percentage of students graduating with loan debt. It was 72 percent in 2010, which ranked fourth nationally. That compares to 74 percent in 2009, which ranked second.

Among Iowa’s public universities, Iowa State University had the highest average debt in the annual data, at $30,062. Debt for University of Iowa graduates in 2010 was reported as $27,391, and University of Northern Iowa’s was reported as $25,735.

The numbers reported by the Project on Student Debt differ from what the universities report each spring to the state Board of Regents, UI Financial Aid Director Mark Warner said. The Project on Student Debt takes its information from the Common Data Set, which does not include transfer student graduates, Warner said, while the figures the UI, ISU and UNI report to the regents every year include all graduates. That difference for the UI in 2010 was average debt of $27,391 as reported by the Project on Student Debt compared to $25,515 as reported to the regents.

It’s also possible colleges and universities are reporting slightly different numbers for the national Common Data Set; perhaps some don’t report private loans or Perkins loans, Warner said.

“It almost becomes apples and oranges,” he said. “That’s what makes it difficult in terms of trying to compare.”

The Project on Student Debt lists ISU as a “high debt” school. Financial Aid Director Roberta Johnson said ISU’s average debt has been steadily declining since 2006, when it hit a high of $32,130. ISU’s average debt will decline again in the 2011 numbers to be reported to the regents next spring, she said. Officials don’t look much at the national comparison, Johnson said, but prefer to look at their own institution numbers from year to year.

“We’ve actually been declining in terms of overall debt,” she said. “It’s a slow process, but I’m heartened that we’re heading in the right direction.”

ISU was the only public university to have average debt above the statewide average in 2010, according to the report. But numerous private schools reported average debt figures above the state number.

The highest average debt among Iowa’s private colleges in the report was $41,399 at the University of Dubuque. The lowest average debt in 2010 was $18,578 for Grinnell College. Average debt for 2010 graduates of other area schools in the report was $33,260 at Coe College, $22,455 at Cornell College and $23,373 at Mount Mercy University.

The states with average debt higher than Iowa’s in the report were New Hampshire, at $31,048, and Maine at $29,983.

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