Mounting debt: the cost of the college degree

Two-thirds of the national college class of 2011 finished school with loan debt, and those who borrowed walked off the graduation stage owing on average $26,600 -- up about 5 percent from the class before.

South Carolina ranks in the top twenty states with the highest debt in 2011 at $25,662. 54% of graduating students carried some sort of student loan debt.

"In these tough times, a college degree is still your best bet for getting a job and decent pay," said TICAS President Lauren Asher. "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. And, if they do need to borrow to get through school, federal student loans, with options like income-based repayment, are the safest way to go."

High-debt states were concentrated in the Northeast and Midwest, with low-debt states mainly in the West and South.

New Hampshire had the highest average debt at $32,450, followed by Pennsylvania at $29,950. Utah and Hawaii had the lowest and second lowest average debt at $17,250 and $17,450.

Actual state averages are likely higher than these estimates, which are based on data reported voluntarily by about half of all public and private nonprofit four-year colleges. The report doesn't include most graduates of for-profit colleges, who typically borrow more than their counterparts elsewhere.

"Voluntarily reported data is all that we've got to shed light on how debt at graduation varies from school to school and year to year. Students need reliable information for all schools, and colleges that consistently and accurately provide their own debt figures deserve a level playing field," said author Matthew Reed.

"Twelve percent of the colleges that reported debt data for 2010 didn't report for 2011, and virtually no for-profit colleges reported at all. The need for federal collection of key debt information at all colleges could not be more clear. "

Coastal Carolina University's Assistant Vice President for Enrollment Services, Gregory Thornburg says there's a variety of factors that go into the cost of college for families to consider. Those factors include tuition, housing, board, books, food, transportation, and person costs, to name a few.

"Every college should have that cost somewhere on their website," he said.

Thornburg adds the fall is about the time of year when families are picking where to go. Then by February 1, they should be applying for student aid. He says it's also important to talk about budget.

"For one of our students from Conway to Myrtle Beach, they are pretty much going to be concerned about tuition and fees, and books, if they are living at home. A student in Georgetown, Aynor, Dillion, you know from a little distance away is going to have a little higher transportation cost so they want to calculate you know cost of driving back and forth," he said.

While 2011 college graduates faced an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent in 2011, those with debt remained better off than those without a degree. The report showed the unemployment rate for those with only a high school degree last year was 19.1 percent.

For a link to the full report, click here.