By Eric Weddle
(Lafayette) Journal and Courier
The burden of student loan debt and the ability for Indiana students to pay it off is not getting easier.
The average amount of debt for 2011 graduates at Indiana’s public, four-year colleges rose to $27,500. The new national average for students earning bachelor’s degrees is $26,600. This comes on the heels of the first study of three-year default rates on student loans. It found Indiana students just a bit below the 13.4 percent national average.
“It is pretty hard to look at the those numbers and not be concerned,” said Teresa S. Lubbers, state commissioner for higher education. “It is having a chilling impact on how people are making decisions on higher education.”
A report by the nonprofit advocacy group The Project on Student Debt ranked Indiana 11th highest in the nation for student debt and with 63 percent of the state’s 2011 graduating class in debt. Nationwide, two-thirds of that class took out loans. Private student loans made up about one-fifth of what they owed.
Lauren Asher, president of The Institute for College Access & Success that oversees the report, said even as unemployment rates for college graduates fell slightly from 9.1 percent in 2010 to 8.8 percent in 2011, anxiety continues for those figuring out how to pay for and pay back a college degree.
“In these tough times, a college degree is still your best bet for getting a job and decent pay,” Asher said. “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.”
The report also calls for federal collection of student debt. According to report author Matthew Reed, 12 percent of the colleges that reported debt data last year did not report for the 2011 report. And very few for-profit colleges reported.
The Indiana college with the highest loan payback was Indiana University’s Northwest campus at $31,686. Students with the least debt graduated at the University of Southern Indiana, owing an average of $18,046. Purdue University student debt was at $27,268 and Indiana University was at $28,434 — both above the national average.
Ted Malone, Purdue director of the division of financial aid, said on the West Lafayette campus there are ongoing efforts to teach students financial literacy and help them budget spending so that they borrow less.
“You should not take more debt than you expect your first-year salary to be,” he said. “That should keep your payments under 10 percent of your disposable income,”
Malone said graduates of only one major on campus — youth, adult, and family services — would make below the average debt amount starting out at a job.
Although Purdue’s West Lafayette campus has the lowest loan default rate in the state among graduates, 2.8 percent, Malone is still concerned. Identifying what defaulting students have in common could offer opportunities to help them sidestep bad decisions.
“Education is ultimately what it is about. Students who are aware of their financial potential can make better decisions as they go,” he said.
Recently the U.S. Department of Education published the three-year default rate, which showed it to be 13.4 percent. The figures are based on the percentage of students whose repayment was to begin between Oct. 1, 2008, and Sept. 30, 2009, and who defaulted before Sept. 30, 2011.
The report shows students who take out loans for Indiana’s public and private colleges are having trouble paying them off at drastically varying rates. Indiana’s average three-year default rate is 12.9 percent. Borrowers are typically in default when payments are delinquent for 270 consecutive days.
The main campuses of Purdue and Indiana universities have the lowest student loan default rates among public schools in the state, with IU-Bloomington at 3.4 percent.
The highest rates were Vincennes University at 21.5 percent and Ivy Tech Community College at 20.2 percent. Jeff Fanter, Ivy Tech spokesman, attributed the high default rate to how the rates are calculated this year.
Lubbers said details are needed to understand why some students at different schools fall into default at higher rates.
“We need to see where are they borrowing and where are they spending it. We know the cost of Ivy Tech is lower than other institutions.”