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Metro

Student debt rises in Mass. and the nation

Burden often heaviest at small private colleges

Anna Shuqom wasn’t all that surprised to hear that students at Wheelock College graduate with average loan debt of nearly $50,000, one of the highest totals in the country. The Wheelock sophomore figures she will owe at least twice that, even with aid from the school she will not have to repay.

“It’s a lot of money,” she said on the Fenway campus recently, frowning at the prospect of the prohibitive monthly loan payments that await her after graduation. “But the costs keep going up.”

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So does student debt. More than 70 percent of US college graduates last year had student loan debt, with an average of more than $29,000, according to a report by the Institute for College Access & Success, a research and advocacy group.

In Massachusetts, 2012 graduates of Wheelock and several other small private schools — Anna Maria College, Becker College, and Curry College — had average debts of more than $40,000.

The latest figures underline the growing problem of the massive sums many college students are borrowing, debt that follows them for years. Last year, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimated that national student loan debt was approaching $1.2 trillion, a 20 percent jump from 2011.

‘Students and families need to know that debt levels can vary widely from college to college.’

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“Students and families need to know that debt levels can vary widely from college to college,” said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access & Success.

Students in Massachusetts graduated with average debt of more than $28,000, the 12th-highest in the country. Two-thirds of all students graduated with some debt.

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Loan burdens are often heaviest at small private schools with modest endowments, where tuition is high and financial aid — grants, scholarships, and other nonloan assistance — is relatively modest.

At wealthier private schools, such as Boston College, Amherst College, and Harvard University, loan burdens are far less onerous, the report found.

That is because these schools can dip into their endowments to help disadvantaged students.

At Williams College, where the annual cost of attendance is almost $59,000, less than one-third of students graduate with debt, with an average burden of under $13,000.

By contrast, at Becker College, which costs about $43,000 annually, nearly all students take out loans and leave the school with an average debt of nearly $45,000.

At Boston University, Suffolk University, and Babson College, students graduated with average debt of more than $30,000.

The report relied on figures provided by colleges, and more than half of all public and nonprofit private schools responded.

Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, said that students, on average, graduate from private colleges in Massachusetts with only slightly more debt than graduates from public colleges.

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, for example, more than 70 percent of graduates took out loans, with an average debt of nearly $28,000.

“By and large, there is a tremendous amount of institutional aid,” at private colleges, which for most students substantially lowers the overall cost, Doherty said.

In Massachusetts, many colleges say they have increased financial aid in an effort to ease the burden on students and their families.

Wheelock says it provides assistance to nearly all its students, with an average of $21,200 in aid.

Becker, in Worcester, says it has boosted aid by more than 43 percent over the past three years, but it is a tuition-dependent college with a modest endowment.

For undergraduates who entered Becker this fall, tuition will remain frozen during their four years.

Officials at smaller private colleges say they attract many students from less wealthy backgrounds, who even with generous financial aid packages must borrow money.

At the same time, the schools typically lack the substantial endowments of larger schools.

“They are the least wealthy institutions, and they provide access to and serve some of the financially neediest students,” said Fran Jackson, director of communication for Curry College in Milton, which costs more than $47,000 annually for resident students.

The school has increased financial aid by $7 million in recent years to help students defray the cost, Jackson said.

At Wheelock, many students were unsure how much they would ultimately have to borrow, but most believed it was worth it to attend a strong school.

“It’s one of those things you just expect going to a private college,” said Jessica Hersom, a junior from Maine. “I’m getting a great education here.”

Indeed, many students said cost did not play a major role in their college decision. They placed a higher value on the small, close-knit campus and its Boston location.

That was also true for Shuqom, who is from Brookline but lives on campus. For now, she was content not to worry too much about the mounting debt.

She would think about that when the time comes.

“I know it’s going to be there,” she said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globepete.

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