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The Class of 2019: Student loan debt is lower in Utah

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Editorial note: the following is the third in a three-part series on the opportunities available to the Class of 2019. Part one and part two are also online.

The idea of free college for all is getting a lot of attention lately… especially as the student loan debt problem grows across the nation. But Utah actually leads the nation with the least amount of student loan debt after school.

Alisa Cloward is graduating the University of Utah this week with no student loans to pay off

“I come from a low-income family, so I was determined not to have any debt,” she said.

She started at Salt Lake Community College, which was cheaper, then transferred to the U of U and got scholarships and tuition assistance. And she worked 3 jobs while going to school.

“Even though I know I’m graduating debt free, I don’t know any of my friends who are,” said Cloward.

Student loan debt in Utah

About 38% of Utah students have some loans to pay off. That’s the lowest number in the nation.

“This is one state-by-state ranking where we like being in the bottom,” said Utah Commissioner of Higher Education Dave Buhler.

Buhler says more students here get Pell Grants, concurrent enrollment credits, help from a 529 savings account, and money from family. Four-year tuition at Utah’s public universities is also the 3rd lowest in the nation.

And the debt that Utah students do carry, is substantially lower than in other states.

It’s an average of $7,545 per student here, compared to $27,167 in the highest state of New Hampshire, says James “Cid” Siedelman, distinguished service professor of economics at Westminster College.

Who owes more? Depends on where you go to school

Siedelman sees one of the main debt problems coming from for-profit institutions.

He says they graduate only about half their students, but they are more likely to carry student loan debt and to be in default or delinquency when they can’t get a job. They also have a model where they get 90 percent of their funding from Federal student loans.

But what about this idea of free college, being pushed by Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders?

Siedelman says these plans would only push the cost to taxpayers and state legislatures.

“This would also create a flood or surplus of college grads, and it won’t speak well for wage growth and opportunity with this significant over-supply,” he said.

He also says not everyone should be pushed toward a four-year liberal arts degree.

Cloward starts working for Microsoft soon after graduation.

“Things have been hard, but I am lucky,” she said.

One would argue she’s lucky, but also a hard worker.

Student loan debt by the numbers

  • $1.4 trillion – the amount of student loan debt we have collectively as a nation (the highest source of private debt behind mortgages)
  • 17% – the percentage of borrowers who are already in delinquency or default
  • 40% – the percentage of borrowers projected to be in delinquency or default by 2023
  • 38% – the percentage of Utah graduates who have student loan debt
  • 62% – the percentage of Utah graduates who have no student loan debt
  • $7,545 – the average amount of debt per graduate in Utah (the state with the most averages $27,167 per grad)
  • 10% – the percentage of students nationwide who are enrolled at for-profit schools
  • 18% – the percentage of student loan debt that comes from for-profit students
  • 54% – the graduation rate for for-profit institutions
  • 90% – the percentage of income for-profit institutions get from federal student loans
  • 7% – the amount by which wages have grown for college graduates since 2000
  • 1% – the amount by which wages have grown for workers with only a high school diploma since 2000