Average Debt for Class of 2020 Varies Widely by State and College; Private Student Loans Drive Up Debt Loads in High-Debt States

Student Debt and the Class of 2020, our sixteenth annual report on debt for bachelor’s degree graduates of public and nonprofit colleges, finds vast variation in debt levels across states as well as colleges. Average student debt at graduation in 2020 ranged from $18,350 in Utah to $39,950 in New Hampshire, and new graduates’ likelihood of having debt varied from 39 percent in Utah to 73 percent in South Dakota. In nineteen states, average debt was more than $30,000, and it was over $35,000 in six states.

Many of the states with high average overall debt amounts also had higher average private debt. Eight states were in the top 10 for both average private and overall debt (including federal, private, state, and institutional debt). Those with more private loan borrowing and high average private debt levels were concentrated in the Northeast, while states with less private debt were concentrated in the West.

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View state fact sheets
View the interactive map

Higher Education and State Budgets: First Lessons from the Pandemic

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities had to shut down campuses and shift to virtual learning almost overnight. Meanwhile, state and national experts initially projected that the disruption would lead to catastrophic declines in state revenue — a major funding source for financial aid and public colleges – and colleges braced for substantial budget cuts.

Between March 2020 and May 2021, the federal government enacted three massive emergency relief bills that injected a total of $75 billion into higher education. That funding, combined with better-than-expected state tax revenues — and, in some states, the use of rainy-day funds — staved off the financial devastation first predicted. Still, the unpredictable nature of the funding led many states to take a feast-or-famine approach to budgeting.

To get an early understanding of the experiences of higher education stakeholders working in states and at colleges when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we interviewed stakeholders across five states — California, Colorado, Michigan, North Carolina, and Texas — to help inform lessons for advocates and policymakers going forward.

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Michigan’s Financial Aid Programs are Too Complicated: There is a Better Way

Michigan’s financial aid system is complicated. The state has eight different programs that serve different populations, have different goals, and operate with different rules. The misalignment between programs is costly for students and colleges.

Centering Students in Michigan’s Financial Aid Programs, a primer and equity analysis released jointly by TICAS and The Century Foundation, examines the current landscape of existing financial aid in the state – an unnecessarily complex system of financial aid programs that aren’t aligned with each other or with the federal Pell grant – and offers policy recommendations for improving the design of financial aid in Michigan.

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​Read a helpful two-page summary of Michigan’s financial aid landscape

Sameer Gadkaree Named New President of the Institute for College Access & Success

We are pleased to announce that Sameer Gadkaree has been selected as the organization’s new president and CEO. Sameer has worked to strengthen higher education policy and opportunity throughout his career. He has worked in the trenches of higher education, leading the adult education division of the seven-campus City Colleges of Chicago during a time of significant reform and student-focused systemwide change, and most recently leading the Joyce Foundation’s grantmaking on higher education and the future of work, with a focus on federal and state policy change.

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TICAS Statement on House Passage of the Build Back Better Act

We applaud the House of Representatives for advancing the Build Back Better Act, which includes critical new investments in college affordability and completion. By making historic increases to the Pell Grant and directing that increase to public and nonprofit colleges, investing in minority-serving institutions, and creating a first-of-its-kind college completion fund, this bill will help millions of students earn a college degree.

Read the full statement

You can make a difference this #GivingTuesday

Today is #GivingTuesday, a day people worldwide come together to celebrate generosity and redefine the giving spirit. At the Institute for College Access & Success, we fight tirelessly for affordability, accountability, and equity in higher education – but we can’t do it without you. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to TICAS this holiday season.

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TICAS In the News

  • “Map: The states with the highest and lowest amounts of student loan debt” | Aarthi Swaminathan, Yahoo! Finance
    “Newly published analysis by TICAS of the Class of 2020, which used data from U.S. Department of Education’s National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, noted that borrowers in D.C., Delaware, and Connecticut had the highest levels of average debt for the 2019-20 academic year. The report also found a rapid increase in the use of private student loans. ‘Despite flattening levels of student loan debt in recent years, the debt of graduating classes has remained near an all-time high, and the debt borrowers hold continues to make their lives financially perilous,’ Sameer Gadkaree, TICAS president, said in a statement.”
  • California Ranks Low For College Debt, But Many Students Still Struggle With High Cost Of Living | Jill Replogle, LAist
    Report co-author Oliver Schak said there were several reasons why California ranks low on student debt despite the state’s high cost of living, including the state’s strong and relatively well-funded public universities. Eighty percent of the 2020 California graduates captured in the report attended public universities, while just 20% attended private nonprofit schools, where cost and debt are often higher. California also has relatively generous financial aid programs. ‘Perhaps the most important factor, and what’s unique to California, is the Cal Grant,’ Schak said. Cal Grants are awarded to low-income students and pay full tuition at University of California and California State University schools.”
  • Democrats keep college completion cash in spending bill | Jessica Calefeti, Politico
    “Earlier iterations of the social spending legislation made access to these grants contingent on states’ participation in free college, so when that program got axed, some supporters feared funding for completion grants was out, too. It survived thanks to advocates’ insistence that even a relatively small pot of money had the power to transform the lives of tens of thousands of students. ‘We’ve had rising high school graduation rates, rising rates of students entering college, and stagnating college graduation rates,’ said Catherine Brown, senior director of The Institute for College Access & Success. ‘Something is happening during the college experience that’s preventing these students from completing. That’s the problem these programs aim to solve.’”
  • Democrats’ Bill Would Deny For-Profit College Students Extra Aid | Erica Green, The New York Times
    Kate Tromble, the vice president at the Institute for College Access & Success, which advocates making college more affordable, said it was time for Congress to start using its legislative levers to steer students toward higher-quality schools. She noted that since the 2009-10 school year, about $9 billion in Pell funding has gone to for-profit schools that have closed; Corinthian and ITT received more than $4 billion. ‘The federal government is providing trillions of dollars in financial aid to help students attend school; it should have an opinion about the quality of the school, the amount of debt and the ability of the program to produce labor market outcomes,’ she said. ‘The idea that we’re starting to articulate that in federal policy is not a bad thing.’”
  • Reshaping the Federal Role in Higher Ed | The Key Ep. 59, Inside Higher Ed
    “This week’s episode of The Key digs into what could end up being one of the most significant pieces of federal higher education policy making in many years: the Build Back Better Act. It includes the American College Promise, his plan to make community college tuition-free, significantly expanded funding for Pell Grants, and, for the first time, a fund that would give colleges incentives for retaining their students and ensuring that they graduate. It would also reshape the relationship between federal and state governments, through a partnership that would give state governments billions but require a lot from them in return. The episode includes conversations with Michele Streeter, associate director of Policy & Advocacy at the Institute for College Access & Success; Jee Hang Lee, senior vice president (and incoming president) at the Association of Community College Trustees; and Will Doyle, a professor of higher education at Vanderbilt University.”