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College debt varies by school, region, study finds

Rising student debt has become a national concern, but the picture is far from uniform, with students at some colleges borrowing 10 times as much as their counterparts at other colleges, a report released Wednesday says.

The Institute for College Access and Success, a research group, reported not only enormous variation in student debt from school to school — from less than $5,000 per borrower at some colleges to almost $50,000 at others — but also wide differences by region, with students in the East and Midwest borrowing far more than those in the West and South.

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The report underscores the murkiness of college costs, with consumers often focusing on sticker prices that have little to do with how much aid they will receive, how much they will pay out of pocket, and how much they may have to borrow.

“There’s a growing awareness of the importance of student debt, and there are many more tools available now for people to learn about costs, but we still have a long way to go in informing people about how to finance an education, and how much it varies from school to school,” said Lauren Asher, president of the institute.

The report came a day after the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau announced that it would regulate large loan servicers like Sallie Mae in the $1.2 trillion student debt market. The bureau, created after the 2008 financial crisis, oversees lenders, but it recently reported that people who have student debt are often tripped up by the loan servicers, particularly when they want to change repayment terms.

The Institute for College Access and Success estimated that of the students who earned bachelor’s degrees in the United States in 2011-12, 71 percent had student loans, and the average borrower had $29,400 in debt, compared with 68 percent and $23,450 four years earlier. The group derived the figures from an annual survey of more than 1,000 colleges and a federal government survey of former students conducted every four years.

The institute’s report lists some of the colleges where students borrow most and least, based on the college survey, while cautioning that some colleges that did not take part in the survey might have made those rosters.

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The high-debt private colleges listed are concentrated in the Northeast, while half of the high-debt public colleges are state schools of Pennsylvania or New Jersey.

The institute also posted college-specific figures on Wednesday, in a searchable online database. It shows two private colleges in Massachusetts, Anna Maria College and Wheelock College, with more than 80 percent of graduates having student loans, and the highest average debt per borrower, around $49,000, among colleges that provided figures. Two other private schools, Becker College in Massachusetts and Marylhurst University in Oregon, had average debt a few thousand dollars lower, but more borrowers — more than 90 percent of their graduates.

At the other end of the spectrum, at the California State University at Sacramento, fewer than half of graduates had student loans, which averaged less than $4,500.

At Bernard M. Baruch College of the City University of New York, the average debt per borrower was slightly higher, but only about 1 student in 5 borrowed any money. And at the College of the Ozarks, a private school in Missouri, only 1 in 9 had student loans.

The colleges on the report’s low-debt list are a geographically diverse mix of public and private, ranging from little-known places like Campbellsville University of Kentucky to Princeton University.

Graduates of colleges in Arizona, California, Louisiana, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming were among the least likely to have student debt, and those who did, borrowed relatively little. Graduates in New Mexico had the lowest average debt per borrower, about $18,000.

At the other end of the spectrum, graduates in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Maine, Minnesota, and Ohio were among the most likely to borrow, and had some of the highest debt loads. Delaware colleges had the highest debt per borrower, almost $34,000.

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