Maine students leave school with the 15th highest rate of of college debt in the nation, according to a report released Thursday by a student loan refinancing and consolidation group.
LendEDU examined student financial aid data for the Class of 2016 from 1,161 public and private nonprofit four-year higher education institutions across the country to come up with its rankings.
In Maine, 58 percent of students included in the survey graduated with some debt, and the average graduate owed $29,752 toward their education, according to the report. That put Maine 15th on the list.
Still, Maine fared better than every other New England state, with the exception of Vermont, where the student debt average was about $2,000 lower, putting it at No. 27 on the list.
Students in Utah had the smallest burden, graduating with an average of $18,810 in debt, according to the data. About 39 percent of students graduated with some debt. On the other end of the spectrum, just under 70 percent of Pennsylvania students had loans to pay back after graduating, worth an average of $35,185.
LendEDU based its report on student financial aid data from Peterson’s, a national college information and test preparation organization. They cobbled together information including the number of bachelor degree recipients in 2016 to the average debt of those graduates. Data for the Class of 2017 won’t be released until 2018.
The report also breaks down the average debt by school, including five of Maine’s seven universities. The highest average debt was at the flagship University of Maine campus in Orono, where tuition is highest. About 77 percent of students graduated with some debt, and the average was just under $35,000.
The University of Maine System has rolled out several initiatives in recent years in an effort to reduce the burden of student debt, including a six-year tuition freeze for in-state students that ended with the most recent budget.
That budget also increased the system’s financial aid investment by $8 million to a total of $77 million, or nearly 12 percent. That’s the largest increase to financial aid in the state’s history, according to UMS spokesman Dan Demeritt.
“Affordability is essential,” Chancellor James Page said in an email Thursday. “Coupled with initiatives like early college, adult degree completion scholarships, and UMPI’s new $2,000 per semester online adult business degree program we are working to keep the cost of public higher education within the means of all Maine families and reduce our students’ debt burden.”
Husson University, a private university based in Bangor, had the highest average student debt figure among private institutions, $33,400, according to LendEDU.
More American college students are foregoing the traditional four-year degree path, often because they didn’t plan out their course load efficiently, change majors or schools or run into personal or financial hardships. Spending more than four years pursuing a degree can drastically increase debt.
The report doesn’t include results from the University of Southern Maine or University of Maine at Farmington, likely because those campuses didn’t respond to the voluntary Peterson’s survey, according to LendEDU. See the full report here.
Lawmakers have sparred among themselves and with the governor in recent years on how best to ease college debt burdens among Maine students, including over a bid to get a $40 million bond question before voters that was aimed at helping students pay off their debts. That debate was pushed to the next session after they failed to reach a deal.