Column: New report on student college debt

A recent report on national and Minnesota college student debt has some surprising, and potentially useful information for families.

Joe Nathan
Joe Nathan

The report comes from the Institute for College Access and Success, a national nonprofit group viewed as worthy of notice from organizations such as The New York Times, NBC News, CNN and USA Today.

The institute describes itself as a group that “works to make higher education more available and affordable for people of all backgrounds.”

“Student Debt and the Class of 2012,” with statistics from many Minnesota colleges and universities, along with others around the country, is available at

The first key finding is that Minnesota college and university graduates rank fourth highest in the country in the amount of debt they have accumulated.

The national average is $29,400. But in Minnesota, the average debt of graduates is $31,497.

Moreover, 70 percent of Minnesota graduates have debt.That also ranks fourth highest in the nation. Wisconsin graduates rank 14th with $28,102 in debt. Iowa ranks sixth, with $29,456; South Dakota ranks 28th, with $25,121. North Dakota average debt was not reported.

The second potentially surprising finding is that average debt of graduates is among the state’s lowest at Minnesota’s most expensive colleges.

Carleton and Macalester are Minnesota’s two most expensive higher education institutions, both charging more than $42,000 in tuition and fees in 2011-12.

But the average debt was $17,289 for a Carleton graduate. Macalester’s average debt was $23,285.

These compare with debt of 2012 graduates at, for example, Minneapolis College of Art and Design ($43,650), Concordia University in St. Paul ($42,020), Hamline ($40,472), College of St. Benedict ($40,030), St. Catherine University ($39,230), Saint John’s University ($34,889), Bethel ($32,483), Gustavus Adolphus ($28,124) and St. Olaf ($27,637).

The study also includes the average debt of Minnesota public universities.

For example, here is the average debt of 2012 graduates at several public universities: University of Minnesota Duluth ($31,711), St. Cloud State University ($30,990), University of Minnesota Twin Cities ($29,702), Minnesota State University – Mankato ($29,587) and University of Minnesota Morris ($25,124).

There are many ways to interpret these statistics. Here are several things that students and families may consider:

• Don’t just look at the official cost of a college and university. If money is a factor (and for most of us, it is), it’s vital to check the amount of grant and work as well as loan funding available. This can make a huge difference.

• As the figures above (and others in the full report) show, there is a difference of $15,000 to $20,000 in average debt among graduates of different Minnesota colleges and universities.

• Don’t assume that the colleges with the highest official costs will be most expensive.

• As noted in other columns, students can save themselves and their families thousands, sometimes tens of thousands of dollars by taking dual (high school and college) credit courses while in high school.

•·Acceptance policies of dual credit courses vary among Minnesota’s public and private institutions. The Center for School Change, where I work, has a free, interactive map on its website explaining these policies for each Minnesota public and private nonprofit college or university. It’s available at

The institute’s report notes that student debt has increased about 6 percent per year over the past few years.

High school course taking and comparison shopping can make a huge difference.

Editor’s note: Joe Nathan, formerly a public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, [email protected].

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