10 Worst States to Live In If You’re Struggling to Pay Off Student Loans

worst states to live in

Feel like you’re scraping together just enough money to make your student loan payments each month? Are you close to missing payments — or even defaulting on your student loans?

Such student debt struggles are increasingly common. National trends show the following:

  • Nearly a quarter of Direct Loan borrowers are on a income-driven repayment (IDR) plan, according to a Nov. 2016 report from the Government Accountability Office. That’s an increase of almost 150 percent from the 10 percent of borrowers on an IDR plan in June 2013.
  • Student loan default rates are rising. A Sept. 2017 report from the U.S. Department of Education shows 11.5 percent of borrowers entering repayment in 2014 defaulted within three years, up from 11.3 percent in 2013.

But where a borrower lives can have a major impact on their ability to pay off their student debt, according to our new study.

If you’re a resident of one of the worst states to live in with student debt, you’re more likely to struggle to keep up with payments. See if your state is on the list.

How we ranked states by student loan affordability

Our 2017 student loan affordability study highlights the 10 states where student loan payments are least likely to be affordable. We compared states based on three key financial factors:

  • The average student loan balance for a 2016 graduate in each state
  • The average annual wage a worker earns in each state
  • The cost of living in each state compared to the national average

With this information, we compared basic living costs to average incomes to find out how much a typical worker has left over each month. We then calculated student loan payments using the standard 10-year repayment plan.

Lastly, we ranked all 50 states and the District of Columbia to find out the worst states to live in while repaying student debt.

Here are the nationwide averages for 2016 graduates:

  • Disposable income devoted to student loan payments: 14.57 percent
  • Average student loan balance: $27,822
  • Average annual wage: $49,630

The average student loan balance estimates for this study are based on borrowing statistics from Peterson’s data and might differ from other projections. For example, a different estimate of student loan debt puts the average balance for a 2016 graduate at $37,721.

Student loans more affordable overall — but not in the 10 worst states

Like the standards set by federal income-driven repayment plans, we considered student loan payments to be affordable when they were equal to 10 percent of disposable income.

Overall, student loans are more affordable for 2016 graduates compared to 2015 graduates, according to our 2016 student loan affordability survey. In 2015, graduates devoted 17.3 percent of their disposable income to student loan payments. For 2016 graduates, the average is 14.57 percent.

However, in the 10 worst states to live in, borrowers devote anywhere from 17.99 percent to 22.17 percent of their disposable income to their student loan payments.

10 worst states to live in if you’re struggling with student debt

Not only will borrowers in these states find it difficult to pay extra on student loans, but they also might struggle to make their payments each month.

Eight of the following 10 states have higher-than-average student loan balances that exceed $30,000 as well as costs of living that exceed the national average.

That means borrowers in these states are among those most likely to benefit from switching to an income-driven repayment plan for federal student loans or refinancing student loans to lower monthly payments.

Here are the 10 states where borrowers’ finances are stretched the thinnest by repaying their student loan balances.

10. Montana

  • Disposable income devoted to student loan payments: 17.99 percent
  • Average student loan balance: $30,994
  • Average annual wage: $41,440
  • City with highest average wage: unavailable

We couldn’t find city-level income data for Montana, but workers in pretty much any part of the state can expect to make well below the national average wage of $49,630. That amounts to about $680 less in income each month.

Montana’s 2016 graduates also borrowed $4,714 more than the 2015 class, raising payments by $48 per month to $314. Overall, this brought Montana from the middle of the pack to one of the worst states live in while paying off student debt.

9. Vermont

  • Disposable income devoted to student loan payments: 18.33 percent
  • Average student loan balance: $28,739
  • Average annual wage: $47,620
  • City with highest average wage: Burlington, $51,600

Vermont again made it on the list of the 10 worst states to live in with student debt. However, the 2016 class is in a better position than Vermont’s 2015 graduates thanks to slightly lower costs of living in Vermont and higher wages that outpaced borrowing.

While 2016 graduates living in Vermont devote 18.33 percent of their disposable income to student loan payments, 2015 graduates paid even more toward debt at 20.42 percent.

8. South Dakota

  • Disposable income devoted to student loan payments: 18.51 percent
  • Average student loan balance: $30,090
  • Average annual wage: $40,070
  • City with highest average wage: Sioux Falls, $43,180

Student loan borrowers in South Dakota, like those in Montana, are saddled with low incomes and high student loan balances.

Overall, South Dakota’s 2016 graduates took out $726 more on average than the 2015 class. Despite incomes that crawled up by $1,250, South Dakota is once again among the worst states to live in if you’re struggling with student debt.

7. Rhode Island

  • Disposable income devoted to student loan payments: 18.96 percent
  • Average student loan balance: $31,497
  • Average annual wage: $51,920
  • City with highest average wage: Providence, $51,100

Rhode Island is No. 7 in this year’s rankings after being No. 5 last year. It appears borrowers in the state are putting less disposable income toward student debt: 18.96 percent compared to last year’s 22.64 percent.

That’s thanks in part to 2016 graduates who borrowed $1,423 less on average than Rhode Island’s 2015 class.

6. Alaska

  • Disposable income devoted to student loan payments: 19.19 percent
  • Average student loan balance: $31,217
  • Average annual wage: $56,710
  • City with highest average wage: Anchorage, $57,770

Despite an average annual wage that’s $7,080 more than the national average, Alaska has high living costs and student debt levels that make it one of the least affordable states. Since residents of Alaska pay 22.4 percent more than the national average for basic expenses, they have less to work with each month.

Alaska’s graduates also have some of the highest levels of borrowing: 12.20 percent higher than the average balance of $27,822.

5. New Jersey

  • Disposable income devoted to student loan payments: 19.35 percent
  • Average student loan balance: $35,143
  • Average annual wage: $56,030
  • City with highest average wage: Trenton, $62,150

It might appear that New Jersey workers get a leg up from higher incomes since they earn 12.9 percent more than the average American.

But their steep cost of living is 13.8 percent higher than the national average. Plus, after Pennsylvania, New Jersey’s average student loan balance is the highest in the nation.

Bottom line: New Jersey residents face some of the highest student debt with less money in their bank accounts.

4. Pennsylvania

  • Disposable income devoted to student loan payments: 19.35 percent
  • Average student loan balance: $35,196
  • Average annual wage: $47,540
  • City with highest average wage: Philadelphia, $53,590

With the highest average student loan balance of any state, Pennsylvania’s college graduates start out owing $7,374 more than the U.S. average. Even worse, Pennsylvania workers have to repay student debt on below-average incomes.

3. Connecticut

  • Disposable income devoted to student loan payments: 19.90 percent
  • Average student loan balance: $32,211
  • Average annual wage: $57,960
  • City with highest average wage: Bridgeport, $64,800

Connecticut’s college graduates carry the fourth-highest student loan balance in the nation thanks to significant payments of $326 per month.

Workers in this state are also up against costs of living that exceed the national average by a whopping 24.1 percent. Despite also earning higher wages, Connecticut’s student loan borrowers are in a tough spot.

2. Maine

  • Disposable income devoted to student loan payments: 20.45 percent
  • Average student loan balance: $30,586
  • Average annual wage: $44,180
  • City with highest average wage: Portland, $47,770

Maine moved from No. 6 to No. 2 this year. The state has living costs that are 10.6 percent higher than the national average and incomes that fall $5,450 short of the national average.

That means Maine residents pay higher living costs while earning less. Add an average student loan balance that surpasses $30,000, and Maine borrowers are among the most likely to struggle with student debt.

1. Hawaii

  • Disposable income devoted to student loan payments: 22.17 percent
  • Average student loan balance: $25,851
  • Average annual wage: $49,430
  • City with highest average wage: Honolulu, $51,080

The average student loan debt for residents living in Hawaii is one of the lowest in the nation, and workers earn wages near the national average. However, that’s not enough to make up for costs of living that are 34 percent higher than the national average.

High costs of living stretch Hawaii workers’ paychecks thin and leave them with far less disposable income than residents in other states, making it the worst state for student loan affordability.

How to manage student loans when you live in one of the ‘worst’ states

While borrowers living in these states are more likely to stretch their paychecks to make their student loan payments, they can take action and see results if they focus on paying down their student debt.

Here are some steps you can take if your state made this list:

  • Focus on increasing your income. The more money you make, the more you’ll have to put toward your student debt. Work toward a raise or consider switching jobs to get higher pay. Starting a side hustle can be another way to bring in more cash.
  • Be realistic about your spending. It’s important to understand the costs in your area and set your personal budget accordingly. Be practical and keep expenses modest when possible.
  • Take advantage of federal student loan protections. With options like income-driven repayment plans, deferment, and forbearance, you can avoid missing payments or defaulting.

Getting ahead of student debt is a daunting task if you live in one of the 10 worst states — but it’s possible. Although you might have a little more working against you than the average student loan borrower, it’s a gap you can close with some extra determination and smart debt strategies.

Full rankings: Student loan affordability by state

Below are the full rankings for student loan affordability in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. States are ranked from worst to best.

Rank State Disposable income devoted to student loan payments Average annual wage Average student loan balance Monthly student loan payment City with highest wages City’s average wage
National 14.57% $49,630 $27,822 $282
1 Hawaii 22.17% $49,430 $25,851 $262 Honolulu $51,080
2 Maine 20.45% $44,180 $30,586 $310 Portland $47,770
3 Connecticut 19.90% $57,960 $32,211 $326 Bridgeport $64,800
4 Pennsylvania 19.35% $47,540 $35,196 $356 Philadelphia $53,590
5 New Jersey 19.35% $56,030 $35,143 $356 Trenton $62,150
6 Alaska 19.19% $56,710 $31,217 $316 Anchorage $57,770
7 Rhode Island 18.96% $51,920 $31,497 $319 Providence $51,100
8 South Dakota 18.51% $40,070 $30,090 $305 Sioux Falls $43,180
9 Vermont 18.33% $47,620 $28,739 $291 Burlington $51,600
10 Montana 17.99% $41,440 $30,994 $314
11 District of Columbia 17.68% $82,950 $33,650 $341
12 Massachusetts 17.37% $60,840 $29,924 $303 Boston $67,930
13 West Virginia 17.30% $40,250 $29,922 $303 Charleston $42,890
14 South Carolina 17.08% $41,530 $29,496 $299 Charleston $44,500
15 New Hampshire 16.57% $50,180 $26,452 $268 Nashua $53,990
16 Idaho 15.79% $41,910 $29,435 $298 Boise $43,040
17 New Mexico 15.70% $44,160 $28,233 $286 Albuquerque $45,920
18 Iowa 15.53% $43,540 $29,288 $297 Des Moines $49,420
19 Kansas 15.32% $43,950 $28,770 $291 Wichita $43,280
20 Delaware 15.30% $50,930 $30,255 $306 Wilmington $54,310
21 Kentucky 15.29% $41,760 $28,934 $293 Louisville $44,270
22 Nevada 15.22% $44,030 $25,815 $261 Reno $45,210
23 Louisiana 15.20% $41,260 $26,863 $272 Baton Rouge $44,460
24 California 15.19% $56,840 $22,517 $228 San Jose $78,990
25 Mississippi 15.17% $38,300 $26,974 $273 Gulfport $41,940
26 Maryland 15.09% $56,120 $27,070 $274 Silver Spring $64,210
27 Minnesota 14.99% $51,330 $31,198 $316 Minneapolis $55,010
28 Indiana 14.98% $42,940 $28,533 $289 Indianapolis $46,840
29 Missouri 14.98% $44,620 $29,215 $296 Kansas City $48,900
30 Oregon 14.95% $49,710 $27,143 $275 Portland $53,960
31 Wisconsin 14.89% $45,240 $27,872 $282 Madison $50,830
32 Ohio 14.83% $45,930 $29,579 $299 Columbus $48,850
33 North Dakota 14.81% $47,130 $28,336 $287 Fargo $45,610
34 Arizona 14.61% $46,290 $26,346 $267 Phoenix $47,540
35 New York 14.48% $58,910 $21,280 $215 New York City $63,320
36 Michigan 14.44% $47,350 $30,289 $307 Ann Arbor $56,160
37 Tennessee 14.16% $42,350 $26,611 $269 Nashville $45,780
38 Alabama 13.87% $42,510 $26,065 $264 Huntsville $52,960
39 Oklahoma 13.73% $42,760 $26,068 $264 Oklahoma City $45,280
40 Illinois 13.68% $51,500 $26,980 $273 Chicago $54,340
41 Florida 13.49% $44,050 $23,999 $243 Gainesville $47,560
42 Wyoming 13.46% $46,840 $25,378 $257
43 Virginia 13.35% $53,090 $27,865 $282 Charlottesville $50,950
44 Nebraska 13.28% $44,170 $25,311 $256 Omaha $46,490
45 Georgia 13.28% $46,540 $26,498 $268 Atlanta $50,720
46 Arkansas 13.17% $39,590 $23,384 $237 Fayetteville $44,980
47 Texas 12.99% $47,770 $26,230 $266 Houston $52,870
48 Colorado 12.99% $52,710 $26,607 $269 Boulder $60,390
49 North Carolina 12.46% $45,280 $24,133 $244 Durham $57,850
50 Washington 12.16% $55,810 $24,331 $246 Seattle $63,300
51 Utah 10.01% $45,490 $18,969 $192 Salt Lake City $48,850

Methodology

This study compared average earnings in each state and the District of Columbia to costs of living and average student loan balances to find the states where student loan repayment is most affordable.

Average student loan balances in each state were calculated from Peterson’s data on indebtedness averages at four-year colleges. Colleges were excluded that did not report a dollar average for the average indebtedness number or if the figure was for a year before 2015.

Disposable income of an average worker in each state was calculated based on the following factors:

Disposable income was then compared to typical payments on the average student debt balance of a 2016 graduate in each state based on the following criteria:

  • Each state’s average student loan debt was amortized over a standard 10-year repayment period, assuming an interest rate of 4.00%.
  • The average payment was compared to disposable income to find the portion of disposable income needed to cover these basic payments.

The study was modeled on federal standards for student loan affordability. Income-driven repayment plans set affordable student loan monthly payments at 10 percent of monthly discretionary income. However, our methodologies differ and might not be reflective of results using income-driven repayment plan formulae.

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