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15 schools with the highest student debt load
Some undergraduates left school with nearly $60K in student loans.
Schools with students that graduate with the most student debt aren’t necessarily the most expensive. They just lack the resources to provide comprehensive financial aid packages to students.
If you’re considering attending one of these colleges, consider applying to outside scholarships, grants and other aid to lower your debt load.
15 schools with the highest student debt load
Graduates of these nonprofit colleges and universities had the highest mean student debt in 2016, according to the US Department of Education (DoE). That year, the majority of undergraduate students graduated with debt above $37,000.
|School||Average undergraduate student debt load|
|1. Wentworth Institute of Technology||$59,419|
|2. Stevens Institute of Technology||$51,244|
|3. Quinnipiac University||$48,894|
|4. University of San Francisco||$48,201|
|5. Baylor University||$44,859|
|6. Albion College||$44,140|
|7. Washington and Lee University||$43,766|
|8. Duquesne University||$43,637|
|9. University of Scranton||$43,530|
|10. Texas Christian University||$42,212|
|11. University of Kentucky||$42,090|
|12. Ithaca College||$42,016|
|13. Providence College||$41,383|
|13. New Jersey Institute of Technology||$40,979|
|14. Trinity University||$40,800|
|15. Butler University||$40,393|
Beware of for-profit universities
Graduates of for-profit schools tend to have a higher rate of student debt than any other type of school. However, for-profit colleges typically don’t report data on their graduate debt rates.
The most recent numbers available are from a DoE study in 2012 — and they’re not pretty:
- Graduates of for-profit colleges in 2012 had an average debt load of $39,950 — almost 45% higher than graduates of other colleges.
- Around 88% of for-profit students that graduated in 2012 took out student loans.
On top of this, for-profit colleges have historically had the highest rate of student loan defaults.
For-profit schools and private loans
Since many for-profit schools are ineligible for federal loans, much of the debt comes from private student loans. Private loans tend to come with higher rates and less flexible repayment plans.
The average interest rate for private loans was nearly 10% higher than the average federal loan rate in 2017, according to a study by the Institute for College Access and Success. They also aren’t eligible for as many forgiveness programs.
In other words, private loans are more difficult to pay off.
How can I avoid student debt?
There are several steps you can take to potentially lower the amount of student debt you graduate with.
1. Apply to schools that meet 100% of need
Haven’t applied to college yet? Compare the financial aid programs offered when making your list of potential schools. Harvard and other top schools started offering 100% need-based financial aid to cover nearly all costs of attendance, and many have followed suit.
Attending a school that meets full financial need doesn’t necessarily mean you get a free ride, though. Most schools that offer 100% need-based aid still require students and families to contribute toward the tuition if it fits their budget — usually if a household income is over $60,000 a year. Often, students cover their portion with a loan.
2. Consider a public school
Public schools are typically less expensive than private schools, especially if you apply as an in-state resident. While these often aren’t as well funded as some top-ranking private schools, their cost of attendance can be a fraction of the price.
Many have merit-based honors programs that are either free or highly discounted. Some even have grants and scholarships for out-of-state and international students and out-of-state residents. You can learn more with our tips for applying to college out of state.
3. Go to college in your state
Attending a public or private school in your state of residence maximizes the amount of scholarships and grants you’re eligible for. That’s because most state financial aid is only available to residents attending a school in that state.
4. Apply for free aid first
You have several in-school and out-of-school options when it comes to free financial aid. These include:
- Work-study programs
Scholarships are typically merit-based, while grants are usually based on financial need. Work-study programs typically come through the federal aid program and are also granted based on need.
You can start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). But also look into outside funding available to students in your state, area of study or demographic.
5. Submit financial aid applications early
Some scholarships and grants are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis. Apply as early as you can to ensure you don’t miss out on funding because someone else snapped it up first.
6. Consider an income-share agreement
With an income-share agreement (IAS), you borrow a fixed amount and agree to pay a percentage of your salary back for a set number of years after you graduate, regardless of how much you make. You could potentially end up paying less than the typical cost of attendance at your school — or more if you get a high-paying job.
Case study: Anna’s experience
Case study: How Anna graduated debt-free
Being from New York, I desperately wanted to leave the East Coast for college. But when I got accepted to the Macaulay Honors program at the City University of New York, it was too good of a deal to turn down.
At the time, it was offering free tuition, free housing, a free laptop and a $7,500 stipend I could use to study abroad or supplement an unpaid internship. It’s since cut back on what it offers incoming students, but it’s still one of the most generous programs out there.
I might not have gotten the classic liberal arts experience I dreamed of as a bookish high school student. But I ended up with a much more impressive resume, more travel opportunities and not a cent of student debt to my name.
I’m struggling with my student debt. What can I do?
Sometimes avoiding a high student debt load is just not possible — especially if you attended one of these schools. But there are several steps you can take to make your student loans more manageable if you’re struggling to pay off a high debt load.
1. Revisit your repayment plan
If you have federal loans, you can choose from several different repayment options. This includes several plans with repayments based on your monthly income and a plan that gradually increases over time, hopefully along with your salary.
Even if you have private student loans, you still might be able to switch to a new repayment plan. Even lenders that don’t advertise income-driven or graduated repayments might be willing to offer them if your financial situation has changed enough since you first took out the loan.
To change your repayment plan, contact your student loan servicer.
2. Consolidate your federal loans
Consolidating federal loans involves combining your federal loans into one Direct Consolidation Loan. This can help you in three ways:
- Lower monthly repayments. Direct Consolidation Loans are eligible for longer terms on certain repayment plans, allowing you to lower your monthly repayments even more.
- More repayment plans. This loan is eligible for most repayment options available to federal loans.
- More forgiveness options. Consolidating your federal loans can also make you eligible for Public Service Loan forgiveness (PSLF) if you weren’t able to sign up for the required repayment plan before.
3. Defer or go into forbearance
If you’ve hit a temporary financial roadblock — maybe you lost your job or went back to school — putting your student loans on hold can help you avoid defaulting.
Talk to your student loan servicer to learn more about your options.
4. Apply for forgiveness
PSLF is the most popular forgiveness program — you get all of your debt canceled after making 120 on-time repayments. But it’s not the only option out there. There are several other government, and even private, forgiveness and repayment assistance programs available for both federal and private loans.
Medical professionals, teachers and lawyers typically have the most options. But you might find programs open to other professions if you do some digging.
5. Refinance with another lender
Once you’ve made headway in your career, you might want to consider refinancing. This allows you to qualify for more competitive rates and terms. It also gives you a chance to switch up your servicer, the company that handles student loan repayments.
Refinancing might not be the best option if you’re struggling with monthly repayments. You typically need to have a strong income, high credit score and low debt-to-income ratio to qualify for a better deal. You also might want to stay away if you’re planning on applying for federal loan forgiveness, since refinancing makes you ineligible.
Compare student loan refinancing options
We update our data regularly, but information can change between updates. Confirm details with the provider you're interested in before making a decision.
Where you attend college has a huge impact on how much debt you graduate with. Many schools simply don’t have the resources to provide full financial aid to all eligible students. But there are tricks to getting the most out of your financial aid package, like applying early and looking for state and private funding.
You can learn more about how financial aid works by checking out our guide to student loans.
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Finder Editorial Review Board Member: Kristin Burton, MPAS, PA-C, CAQ-HM
Certified physician assistant, money coach and keynote speaker on a mission to help others reach financial independence.
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