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Graduates of small colleges average $38,000 in debt

Students enrolled in small private liberal arts colleges in Massachusetts tend to graduate with significantly more loan debt than their counterparts at larger universities, according to a new nationwide study.

Graduates of Massachusetts institutions that ranked highest in student debt were saddled with an average of $38,200 when they graduated in 2011, compared with about $17,000 for those who ranked at the bottom of the list, according to the study released Thursday by the California-based Institute for College Access & Success, a independent, nonprofit group that works to make higher education more affordable.

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The study is the latest snapshot of a growing reality for many college graduates, whose education is now more heavily dependent on borrowing than that of their parents. It also comes as college affordability is a hot topic on the campaign trail and as families struggle to keep up with soaring tuition costs.

The study found that students who graduated with debt from four-year public and private institutions nationwide owed an average of $26,600 in loans. That is a 5 percent increase over 2010.

New Hampshire tops the nationwide list for the highest average student debt, at $32,440. Massachusetts ranks 14th, with average student loan debt of $27,181.

Forty-five four-year Massachusetts institutions responded to the survey. Graduates of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston carried the most debt, an average of $45,418 , the study shows.

Graduates of Wheelock College, also in Boston, accrued the second highest average debt at $45,391. Curry College in Milton was third, at $41,281.

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By comparison, Harvard University undergraduates who graduated had a reported average debt of $11,780. At Boston College, average debt was $20,598.

Officials at the smaller private colleges say several factors are causing their students to take on more debt.

“Many small institutions are very much tuition-driven,” said Adrian K. Haugabrook, vice president of enrollment management at Wheelock College. “Many small institutions won’t have a large research component. Large institutions have that and can draw out from research dollars for operating costs. We have to do a lot of fund-raising.”

They also said smaller colleges cannot compete with the billions of dollars in endowments at large institutions. The conservatory’s endowment, at its maximum, was about $115 million, while Wheelock's is around $45 million.

Tougher economic times means that more students with greater financial needs are enrolling in college, forcing families to cover the gap between student aid, which includes grants and work-study opportunities, with loans, Haugabrook said.

“We really try to arrange our financial aid leveraging system so we can support more need,” Haugabrook said. “But we realize the cost associated with private institutions is higher and there is a gap.”

The New England Conservatory’s debt ranking reflects an apples-to-oranges comparison, said spokeswoman Ellen Pfeifer, because the school is so specialized.

“Every student has a private lesson a week with a teacher, so it’s very different from schools where you have a bunch of classes and you have one teacher to many students,” Pfeifer said. “But the fundamental difference is the one-on-one studio experience that’s a more expensive model.”

Both Haugabrook and Pfeifer said that their respective graduates’ loan-default rates are lower than the national average.

Whether attending a small or large institution, students should decide where to enroll based primarily on how much debt they expect to accrue, said Bob Giannino-Racine, chief executive officer at uAspire, a Boston nonprofit that helps families consider the financial aspects of college.

“Young people and families should look to go to institutions where they’re going to get the best value for their education,” Giannino-Racine said. “If not, [the debt rate] is going to go higher, and higher, and higher. If we’re not on the verge of a financial collapse as a result of student loans, we will be.”

Despite the numbers, Rich Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, said colleges here are aware of the affordability problem and have rationed the amount of aid accordingly. In the past five years, he said, private colleges in the state have provided about $520 million in financial aid to Massachusetts students.

“The average debt [reflected] in the study, it went up about 5 percent. I don’t think that’s a huge increase,” Doherty said.

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated a quote by a Wheelock College official.

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