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Average student loan debt for class of 2011 tops $26,000

It’s the latest snapshot of the growing burden of student debt and it’s another discouraging one: Two-thirds of the national college class of 2011 finished school with loan debt, and those who borrowed walked off the graduation stage owing on average $26,600 — up about 5 percent from the class before.

The latest figures are calculated in a report out Thursday by the California-based Institute for College Access and Success, also called TICAS, and probably underestimate the problem in some ways because they don’t include most graduates of for-profit colleges, who typically borrow more than their counterparts elsewhere.

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Still, while 2011 college graduates faced an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent in 2011, even those with debt remained generally better off than those without a degree. The report emphasized research showing that the economic returns on college degrees remain, in general, strong. It noted the unemployment rate for those with only a high school credential last year was 19.1 percent.

‘‘In these tough times, a college degree is still your best bet for getting a job and decent pay,’’ said TICAS president Lauren Asher. ‘‘But, as debt levels rise, fear of loans can prevent students from getting the education they need to succeed. Students and parents need to know that, even at similar-looking schools, debt levels can be wildly different. And, if they do need to borrow to get through school, federal student loans, with options like income-based repayment, are the safest way to go.’’

The latest figures come at a time of increasing alarm about the sheer scope of student debt nationally, which by some measures has surpassed $1 trillion. Recent government figures show nearly 10 percent of borrowers of federal student loans in the most recently measured cohort had defaulted within two years of starting repayment.

The issue has come up on the presidential campaign trail, though the candidates’ specific plans haven’t become a major issue. President Obama has pointed to his record of ending $60 billion in subsidies to private lenders, ­directing the savings to student aid, and implementing an income-based repayment plan that caps federal student loan payments at 15 percent of income and forgives repayment after 25 years.

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