Louisiana college students continue to graduate with lower average debt loads than graduates in most states across the country.
A new report from the Project on Student Debt at The Institute for College Access & Success, or TICAS, also found fewer than half of the students graduating from Louisiana colleges and universities in the class of 2013 had student loan debt to pay off — well below the national average of 70 percent.
As tuition continues to creep up under the state Legislature-approved GRAD Act, which allows schools to increase tuition by 10 percent each year if they meet certain performance benchmarks, the statewide average debt load hit $23,358 for the class of 2013 — up about 2.5 percent from the $22,789 average for the class of 2012. But it still remained well below the latest national average of $28,400.
The states with the highest student debt loads fell mostly in the northeastern corner of the country, where students could expect to have nearly $10,000 more in debt when they graduate, compared to Louisiana.
“A college degree is still the best path to a job and decent pay, and while loans are increasingly needed to get through school, graduating with burdensome debt is not a foregone conclusion,” said TICAS President Lauren Asher.
For the class of 2013, Louisiana ranked among the 10 states with the lowest debt amounts, likely thanks, in part, to the state’s generous Taylor Opportunity Program for Students, better known as TOPS, which covers some expenses for Louisiana high schoolers who stay in state for college.
LSU President and Chancellor F. King Alexander repeatedly has hammered the point home that the picture for the average LSU student is far better than the average outlook. The latest TICAS report reflects that LSU’s rates are even below the state average with just 39 percent of students graduating with an average $21,613 debt.
“We are still a bargain,” Alexander said during an interview with The Advocate earlier this year.
But the picture isn’t entirely rosy, some advocates say.
State spending on higher education repeatedly has been cut in recent years, and under the GRAD Act, tuition rates have been on a steady incline.
“This means that students and parents are on the hook for making sure they have the money or they borrow the money to fill in that gap,” Louisiana Association of Educators President Debbie Meaux said during a recent media call.
Meaux and other education advocates with Generation Progress have been drawing attention to the impact increasing loan debts can have on people who go into the often lower-paying teaching profession and what that could mean for education in the state as a whole. Beginning teacher salaries range from $30,000 to $40,000 here, she said.
“They are not able to enter entry-level jobs and live comfortably with such a huge debt hanging over their heads,” she said of newly graduated teachers entering the field. “Educators are being disincentivized to enter the teaching profession.”
Meaux said that creates a cycle: New graduates can’t afford to live and repay student loans on teachers’ salaries, so they jump to higher-paying fields or move to other states where teachers are paid more.
“Teachers want the American dream, too,” she said.
Morgan Wittenberg, a Tulane University student and president of Undergraduate Student Government, said she wishes the federal government would act to allow student loan refinancing. She estimated she has just shy of the national average debt — somewhere around $25,000, and that’s before any thought of professional or graduate school, she noted.
“Full disclosure: I’m absolutely terrified,” Wittenberg said.
Alexander, who has led LSU for just over a year now, has spent several months advocating for a new federal report card that would reflect student loan indebtedness, which he said would help students make better decisions about the value of colleges.
TICAS leaders, in the report out this month, also stressed the need for additional data, in addition to attention to the rising debt levels nationally.
“Only with comprehensive, reliable data for every college will we see the full picture of student debt. This is too important an issue for students, schools and policymakers to rely on voluntary, self-reported data,” said TICAS Program Director Matthew Reed, a co-author of the recent report. “Federal collection of both federal and private loan debt at graduation is both necessary and long overdue.”