Student Debt-to-Income Ratios Lowest in California, Highest in Mississippi

 May 11, 2021
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Average college costs in 2020-2021 for full-time undergraduates range from $18,550 for in-district students at two-year public schools to $54,880 for students at four-year, private nonprofit schools, according to College Board.

The newest Student Loan Hero study takes a deeper look by evaluating student debt-to-income (DTI) ratios among borrowers. Researchers examined median student loan debt among borrowers at graduation and compared that to the median earnings of those who are in the workforce and are no longer enrolled six years after entering college.

Here are the findings, by institution type, state and school.

Key findings

  • Students could consider two-year public schools if they’re looking to have the lowest student debt-to-income (DTI) ratios after college. Students at these schools leave with an average student DTI ratio of 0.40, meaning student debt is equal to 40% of earnings.
  • Students at four-year public colleges in California have the lowest student DTI ratios. Students graduate from these California colleges with a median debt of $16,067, and they have median earnings of $38,759 six years after entering school. That’s a student DTI ratio of 0.42, lowest in the study. Up next is Utah and New York at 0.44 and 0.47, respectively.
  • Students who attend four-year public schools in the South face the highest student DTI ratios. Mississippi (0.92), District of Columbia (0.89) and Alabama (0.83) students have the highest student DTI ratios.
  • Among four-year public schools, medical- and science-oriented institutions tend to offer the most bang for their buck when it comes to student debt and income. The top four-year public schools when examining student DTI ratios are SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn, N.Y. (0.17), Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in Lubbock, Texas (0.18) and the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y. (0.18).
  • Four-year private colleges are a mixed bag when it comes to student DTI ratios. Students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass. have an average student DTI ratio of 0.15 — lowest in the study — compared with Martin University in Indianapolis at the other end, with an average student DTI ratio of 2.48.

Consider 2-year public colleges for lowest student debt-to-income ratios

Student Loan Hero researchers found that students who attend two-year public colleges have average debt-to-income ratios of 0.40. The two-year public colleges with the lowest DTI ratios are:

  • Laredo College in Laredo, Texas (0.10)
  • John A. Logan College in Carterville, Ill. (0.14)
  • Northwestern Connecticut Community College in Winsted, Conn. (0.17)

Lower student loan debt balances at graduation contribute to the low DTI ratios among two-year public college students. Across the 578 schools examined, two-year public college graduates leave school with a median student loan debt of $10,566.

It’s important to note, however, that borrowers in the workforce who attend this institution type have a median income of $26,608 six years after entering college. This is the lowest median income when compared to borrowers from four-year public or private schools.

4-year public colleges vs. 4-year private colleges

In contrast, the DTI ratio among students of the 524 four-year public colleges examined is 0.63. Students who attend this institution type have a median student debt balance of $21,106, with median annual earnings of $35,555.

Students attending the 1,017 four-year private institutions examined can also expect a notably higher DTI ratio — 0.72. Students graduate with a median education debt of $24,002, and their median income six years after entering college is $36,299.

While the study focuses on student debt compared to income, Andrew Pentis, senior writer at Student Loan Hero, emphasizes the importance of understanding how students’ overall DTI — including all monthly debts, rather than solely student loan debt — affects their life after college.

“Once you leave school, DTI is among a variety of financial factors that will determine your access to additional credit, whether you’re adding plastic in your wallet or looking to take on a home mortgage,” Pentis says. “That’s why it’s so critical not to put yourself in a position where your DTI will be out of whack for years to come.”

Starting at a two-year junior college instead of going straight to a four-year school is one way to lower college expenses, Pentis says.

Related: Best lenders to refinance student loans

Student DTI ratios lowest in the West

Four of the five states with the lowest student debt-to-income ratios across four-year public schools are in the West — California, Utah, Wyoming and Nevada. New York is the only state not in the West to crack the top five. Here’s a closer look:

Lowest student debt-to-income ratios by state
State Median debt Median earnings Student DTI ratio
California $16,067 $38,759 0.42
Utah $15,197 $34,850 0.44
New York $16,979 $38,436 0.47
Wyoming $18,356 $38,700 0.47
Nevada $19,182 $38,067 0.50

California’s student DTI ratio ranks as the lowest in the nation at 0.42. The median student loan debt among four-year public schools across California is $16,067, with median earnings of $38,759.

Here’s a look at the four-year public colleges in California with the lowest student DTI ratios:

4-year public colleges in California with lowest student debt-to-income ratios
College Median debt Median earnings Student DTI ratio
University of California, Berkeley $13,478 $48,700 0.27
University of California, Davis $13,000 $40,400 0.32
California State University Maritime Academy (Vallejo) $24,615 $73,100 0.33

Each of these campuses is in Northern California — two within the San Francisco Bay Area. The median household income in the colleges’ areas is higher than the national median income, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, which can contribute to students’ low DTI ratios.

Of note, six four-year public New York colleges are among the 20 schools with the lowest student DTI ratios (more on this later).

Student DTI ratios highest in the South

Among the five states with the highest student debt-to-income ratios, four are in the South — Mississippi, District of Columbia, Alabama and Kentucky. Pennsylvania is the only outlier. Here’s a closer look:

Highest student debt-to-income ratios by state
State Median debt Median earnings Student DTI ratio
Mississippi $24,221 $28,163 0.92
District of Columbia $25,889 $29,100 0.89
Alabama $24,583 $30,900 0.83
Pennsylvania $25,688 $32,878 0.80
Kentucky $23,651 $30,363 0.80

Mississippi’s student DTI ratio ranks as the highest in the nation at 0.92. The median student loan debt among four-year public schools across Mississippi is $24,221, with median earnings of $28,163.

Here’s a look at the four-year public colleges in Mississippi with the highest student DTI ratios:

4-year public colleges in Mississippi with highest student debt-to-income ratios
College Median debt Median earnings Student DTI ratio
Mississippi Valley State University (Itta Bena) $31,000 $19,900 1.56
Alcorn State University (Lorman) $30,385 $23,100 1.32
Jackson State University $30,488 $25,100 1.21

Each of these Mississippi colleges is among the 15 four-year public schools with the highest student DTI ratios — all with earnings significantly lower than the median of $35,555 across these types of schools.

Full rankings: Student DTI ratios by state

New York and Texas are home to more than half of the schools with the lowest student DTI ratios

Looking at the school level among public four-year colleges nationwide, New York and Texas stand out for offering students higher earning opportunities after leaving school while keeping student debt low. In fact, 11 of the 20 schools with the lowest student debt-to-income ratios are in New York or Texas.

The five public four-year schools with the lowest student DTI ratios — regardless of location — are focused on health and science or the military. Here’s a closer look by school:

Lowest student debt-to-income ratios at 4-year public schools
College Median debt Median earnings Student DTI ratio
SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University (Brooklyn, N.Y.) $12,500 $75,300 0.17
Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center (Lubbock) $12,500 $68,300 0.18
United States Merchant Marine Academy (Kings Point, N.Y.) $12,000 $65,200 0.18
The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center (Houston) $12,500 $64,300 0.19
Oregon Health & Science University (Portland) $16,625 $80,000 0.21

Among the upsides, pursuing a health-based profession could provide access to more student loan forgiveness programs that can help students get out of educational debt faster.

Southern states are home to 75% of the schools with the highest student DTI ratios

While New York and Texas stand out for having schools with low student debt-to-income ratios, Southern states stand out for those with high student DTI ratios (following the trend discussed higher in the study). In fact, 15 of the 20 schools with the highest student DTI ratios are in the South, spread across Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Texas, Virginia and North Carolina.

The five public four-year schools with the highest student DTI ratios are all state universities, four of which are in the South — three in states along the Gulf Coast. The other school among the five is located in Missouri. Here’s a closer look by school:

Highest student debt-to-income ratios at 4-year public schools
School Median debt Median earnings Student DTI ratio
Grambling State University (Louisiana) $37,192 $21,900 1.70
Mississippi Valley State University (Itta Bena) $31,000 $19,900 1.56
Fort Valley State University (Georgia) $33,560 $22,800 1.47
Harris-Stowe State University (St. Louis) $31,688 $21,800 1.45
Alabama State University (Montgomery) $32,000 $22,600 1.42

Students who graduate from these schools with the highest student DTI ratios leave college with a median debt of at least $31,000 but only earn an average income of $21,800 six years after entering school.

The high loan debt accumulated by students to attend these state universities, coupled with median earnings far below the $35,555 national average, position these institutions to rank for the highest student DTI ratios in the country.

Students who are considering attending these schools should calculate their student loan payments against prospective income from their desired career field.

4-year private colleges have widest swings in student DTI ratios

Four-year private, nonprofit institutions have the highest student debt-to-income ratios at 0.72 on average across the 1,017 four-year private schools included in the study. However, private colleges have the widest range of student DTI ratios, from 0.15 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge to Martin University in Indianapolis at a whopping 2.48.

“Private colleges and universities are generally significantly more expensive to attend than public options, particularly when that public school is in your home state or region and you’re able to qualify for in-state tuition rates,” says Pentis, adding that a private school degree doesn’t guarantee a higher income after graduation. “Combine those two factors, and it’s not surprising to learn that private college grads are leaving school with higher DTIs — and therefore taller mountains to climb.”


Published in Press, Research