FORT KENT, Maine — Two years ago, Maine ranked second highest in the country, behind New Hampshire, in a national report that measured the student loan debt of recent college graduates.
That information was wrong, however, and in the most recent report the state has dropped all the way to No. 18. The state’s high ranking was due in large part to incorrect data supplied to the reporting organization by one of Maine’s largest universities, the University of Southern Maine.
At the same time, the latest annual report released by the Project on Student Debt shows one of the state’s smallest campuses — the University of Maine at Fort Kent — as graduating students with some of the lowest debt loads in the country.
The most recent information was collected on the Class of 2011 from 1,057 universities and colleges responding to a nationwide survey conducted by The Institute for College Access and Success for the Project on Student Debt.
The new report showed that 85 percent of the seniors who graduated from the University of Southern Maine in 2011 had student loan debt. Those students carried an average debt load of $23,891.
In 2010, however, the University of Southern Maine had misreported that 85 percent of its graduates carried student debt, averaging $38,899, according to Matthew Reed, researcher with The Institute for College Access and Success.
Those numbers were later amended to 61 percent carrying an average debt load of $26,249, Reed said recently, adding that the corrected information was reported too late to make it into last year’s print publication of the debt report.
“But as soon as we knew about it, we made a note on our website with the correction,” he said.
Those errors stemmed from the university switching to a new software system in the midst of submitting the debt data, according to Bob Caswell, USM executive director of public affairs.
The latest report for 2011 graduates also showed University of Maine at Fort Kent students were leaving with some of the lowest student loan debt in the country, which got the small campus included in U.S. News & World Report’s short list of “10 Colleges Where Graduates Have the Least Debt,”
According to U.S. News & World Report, UMFK came in at No. 8 overall among all schools included in the Project on Student Debt, and first among public universities.
Sixty-five percent of the UMFK seniors graduated in 2011 with student loan debts. The average debt for those graduates was $9,505, far lower than the national average of $26,600 and the Maine average of $26,046.
The information U.S. News & World Report used in its rankings was based only on what was voluntarily supplied by schools to The Institute for College Access and Success, according to Robert Morse, director of data research at the publication.
“About 1,000 schools reported their debt,” he said, adding the debt averages do not include variables like family loans to the students.
Alaska, Delaware and New Mexico did not provide data for the 2011 report and not every school in the responding states participated in the survey. According to the 2012 Higher Education Directory, there are 3,022 four-year private and public colleges and universities in the country.
Despite the number of schools that didn’t participate, Morse said, “We are confident in the data. This is useful information for students to know because the rankings give them an indication of what they may need to pay back and what income stream they will need after graduation.”
The numbers in the U.S. News & World Report rankings and the other reports also help lending institutions and the universities chart trends in student debt over time and region, Morse said.
“These are useful numbers to capture the pattern of student debt,” Reed said.
Among the 10 colleges and universities reporting in Maine, UMFK is undeniably at the lower end of the debt spectrum, while Maine Maritime Academy, with a reported debt average of $41,328, is at the highest.
MMA officials point out, however, that their alumni’s federal loan default rate of 1.5 percent is well below the national average of 9.1 percent, due in no small part to a job placement rate of 90 percent within 90 days of graduation.
“MMA students are typically qualified for well-paid positions upon graduation,” Jennifer DeJoy, MMA director of college relations, said in an email response. “So that debt does not become a long-term burden.”
For many MMA students, DeJoy, said, part-time employment while attending the school is not possible given the intense academic schedules and programs requiring up to 180 days of additional training on the school’s ship the State of Maine or in cooperative educational settings off-campus.
At UMFK officials are saying their campus gives a pretty good bang for the buck.
“There are a number of things to explain why this is,” Wilson Hess, UMFK president, said. “Some are new, some have been around for awhile and some say something very special about UMFK.”
Hess was quick to point to the work ethic contained in the St. John Valley and a certain degree of frugality that comes with it.
“For some time, generations have talked about that work ethic here,” Hess said. “Those values are still alive and well here and it reflects the folks who live here and of those who come here.”
According to a UMFK survey of its students, 27 percent of upper-class students are holding down off-campus jobs of 30 or more hours a week.
“We talk about that work ethic,” Hess said. “Well, UMFK has the numbers to say that work ethic is here.”
At the same time, Hess said UMFK has worked hard to position itself as a low-cost provider of four-year degrees in the University of Maine System.
Current in-state annual tuition costs at UMFK are $6,600, an amount shared by UMaine Presque Isle and UMaine Machias. Only University of Maine at Augusta charges less at $6,510. At the state’s larger institutions, annual tuition is $8,730 at the University of Maine and $7,590 at the University of Southern Maine.
Those amounts do not reflect room, board, and laboratory or book costs which vary from campus to campus.
Four of the seven UMaine system campuses responded to the voluntary Class of 2011 student debt survey.
Reporting along with UMFK and USM were the University of Maine, where 75 percent of the graduating class carried an average student debt of $29,753, and the University of Maine at Presque Isle, with 65 percent averaging $18,698.
“It’s very important for me to come out of college with not a lot of debt,” UMFK student Elizabeth Gray said. “I do have a few loans but they are not very much.”
To supplement student loans, Gray, an elementary education major from Sedgwick, works part time in the university’s admissions office.
Walking away from UMFK with a diploma in hand and a lower-than-average student debt gives graduates a huge advantage, Hess said.
“How much do we hear nationally about the debt burden of our graduates — $40,000, $50,000, $60,000 — you are talking about students who already have a debt commitment equal to the down payment on a good-size house,” he said. “When your [student] debt is lower, you have a lot more flexibility.”