Next month, we’ll be releasing our twelfth annual report on state-by-state and school-by-school levels of student debt among recent college graduates, Student Debt and the Class of 2016. A lot has changed since we started these analyses. Initially, our aim was to call attention to rising levels of indebtedness, as the issue of student debt was not yet commanding the attention of the public or policymakers. Now, student debt is widely recognized as a significant national issue affecting millions of Americans, and our report isn’t simply about raising awareness of rising debt and where debt levels are highest. It’s also about fostering support for policies to help reduce debt and debt burdens for those who need to borrow to pay for college.
Along with new state- and institution-level debt figures, our forthcoming report will include analysis of where private loan borrowing, which is riskier than federal loan borrowing, is most pronounced. We’ll also be taking a close look at colleges where graduates leave with high levels of debt and whether those colleges have chosen to spend substantial financial aid resources on students without financial need. And we’ll be updating our data website www.College-InSight.org so that students, parents, colleges, journalists, and policymakers can see colleges’ debt levels alongside myriad other information about those colleges, such as low-income enrollment, enrollment by race, or graduation rates, and even compare averages across states.
One thing our report will not include this year is a national average for bachelor’s degree completers. While we receive new school-by-school debt figures annually, and use them to calculate state-level averages, the best available national average comes from a nationally representative federal study that is released every four years by the U.S. Department of Education (the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, or NPSAS). The next set of NPSAS data will cover students who graduated in the Class of 2016 – the same group of students that will be covered in our report – but the federal data aren’t expected to be available for several more months.
Why are we planning to wait for NPSAS to publish a national average rather than estimating it based on data that schools voluntarily report to college guide publishers? Because we have consistently found that college-reported figures understate student debt levels. NPSAS provides the most comprehensive and reliable national estimate because it is based on a large, nationally representative sample of students, rather than on voluntarily reported data by colleges that participate in a private survey. In years when we can make a direct comparison to NPSAS data, the college-reported figures understate average student debt at the national level by as much as eight percent compared to NPSAS, and the share of students borrowing by as much as 13 percent. For example, the most recent NPSAS showed average debt for the Class of 2012 that was about $2,000 higher than the average based on college-reported data. This could be due to a number of factors, including missing data from many schools and the exclusion of private loans that colleges don’t know about. The same data flaws likely affect the state-level and school-level averages we calculate and publish as well, but we don’t have a better source for state-by-state and institutional figures. For a national average, though, we do, which is why we’re choosing to wait to publish a national average until we have more comprehensive and reliable data. Additionally, using the NPSAS data will allow us to include borrowing and debt levels for for-profit college graduates, which is not possible with available college-level data because almost no for-profit colleges voluntarily report their data to other surveys.