Which Public Schools Burden Students with the Most Debt

 August 12, 2019
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When it comes to choosing a college or graduate school, public institutions tend to be more affordable than private ones, especially for in-state students. According to the College Board, the average annual tuition at a four-year private school is $32,410, compared to $9,410 at a four-year public school for state residents (and $23,890 for out-of-state students).

But even though public colleges generally cost less than their private counterparts, their price tag is still high enough to leave many attendees with student loan debt. To find out how much debt public university graduates are in, we took a look at the average federal student loan debt among them.

As it turns out, even students who choose public education are not immune from the burden of student loan debt.

Key findings

  • Students tend to leave medical school — even public ones — owing the most student loans. Among the top 10 public schools with the highest average student loan burden, eight are focused on medicine.
  • Graduate students at public schools take on more federal student loans than undergraduates attending public colleges.
  • Technical and community colleges leave their graduates with the least amount of debt, while also boosting their earning potential (though not to the same extent as a bachelor’s degree).
  • Parents take on significant amounts of debt to finance their children’s education, even at public colleges. The top public school for parental debt clocked an average of $31,602 for Parent PLUS loans.

Medical schools will cost you

If you’re planning to become a healthcare professional, be prepared for major student loan debt. Among public colleges that leave graduates most in debt, 8 out of 10 were medical schools.

The University of Tennessee Health Science Center topped the list, leaving students with an average of $25,373 in federal student loans. The Medical University of South Carolina and Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center also left students with significant student loan burdens — $24,740 and $20,230, respectively.

While these figures reflect all students at the schools in question, graduate students had much higher debt burdens. At the Medical University of South Carolina, for example, grad students left with $32,403 in Direct unsubsidized loans and $23,149 in Grad PLUS loans. This was well below the same school’s debt levels for undergraduates, who borrowed an average of $3,949 and $4,967 in Direct subsidized and unsubsidized, respectively.

Note that many graduates likely owe even more when you take private student loans into account. Medical school typically spans four years, plus an additional three to seven years of residency following graduation, so it makes sense that students must take on debt to attend.

Despite the high debt balances, those with medical degrees are likely in a solid position to pay back their debt. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for physicians and surgeons in 2018 exceeded $208,000.

Grad students take on more debt than undergrads

Students leave with more debt from graduate school than they do from their undergraduate education, the study showed. While tuition costs and fees can vary widely for graduate programs, we see students taking on greater amounts of debt for their graduate degrees across the board.

At the University Of Tennessee Health Science Center, for example, where graduate students left owing $32,071 in unsubsidized Direct loans, undergrads only left with $5,410. Plus, graduate students also borrowed an additional $17,413 in Grad PLUS loans to attend.

Part of this might also be due to the fact that federal Direct loans for graduate students have much higher borrowing limits than those for undergrads. Plus, grad students can borrow even more in the form of Grad PLUS loans, which effectively have no maximum borrowing limit.

Despite the burden of debt, though, a graduate degree still seems worth the cost. According to Census Bureau data, the average graduate degree holder earns 132% more than the average American with only a high school degree. So while you might take out student loans to finance your graduate degree, advancing your education is also likely to boost your earning potential.

Technical and community colleges leave students with less debt

With the costs of tuition higher than ever, some students look to community colleges or vocational schools to further their education in an affordable way. Not surprisingly then, the schools where students take on the least debt include a sizeable number of community colleges and technical colleges.

For example, at Belmont College, a small technical school in Ohio, the average student with debt took on just $1,638. West Virginia Northern Community College-Wheeling Campus took the second-to-last-spot, with its graduates owing an average of only $1,819.

This relatively small amount of debt seems worth it, too, since associate degree holders earn about 20% more on average than Americans with just a high school degree. Some students also choose the “2 + 2” route, which involves earning their associate degree at a community college and then transferring to a four-year college to earn their bachelor’s.

This 2 + 2 strategy can be an effective way to save money while still eventually earning a bachelor’s from your four-year college of choice. And it’s another way to boost your earning potential, as the average bachelor’s degree holder pulls in 71% more income than the average American with a high school degree.

Consider your future debt before choosing a school

The student loan crisis is worse than ever, with 45 million Americans owing $1.56 trillion in student debt — and more than 1 million borrowers defaulting ever year. Even though earning an advanced degree remains valuable, it’s also important to be cautious about how much debt you (or your parents) take on to get it.

So before choosing a college or graduate school, make sure to compare costs of attendance. Estimate how much student loans you or your parents would need to borrow to attend, and use a student loan calculator to estimate your monthly payments and interest accrual.

Importantly, don’t assume that choosing a public college over a private one will leave you free of student loan debt. Even though public colleges tend to be more affordable, students still often graduate with a serious debt burden, especially those who choose an out-of-state school or attend graduate school.

If you’re already managing student loans, explore your various options for repayment. Whether you opt to pay your for an income-driven repayment plan or refinance for better rates, you can find a repayment strategy that moves you closer to a debt-free life.

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