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College Grads Face Record Debt

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For the first time ever, the average college senior owes more than $25,000 in debt, according to a study released this week by the Project on Student Debt. Graduates in the class of 2010 now owe $25,250 in student loans, a five-percent increase over their predecessors the year before.

“Some thought the jump would be even higher because of the economic downturn,” says Matthew Reed, author of the report. “But increased grant aid helped at least partially offset lower family incomes and higher tuitions while the Class of 2010 was in school.”

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Not only do graduates leave school saddled with more debt, they also enter an uncertain job market. The unemployment rate among recent graduates is 9.1 percent, the highest rate in recent history, according to the report.

Average student loan debts varied widely by state, and also by type of loan. It’s lowest in many Western states, including Utah where the average debt is $15,509, and higher in Midwestern and Eastern states. The average college graduate in Maine owes $31,048, the highest in the country.

When it comes to which type of student loan to get, federal loans are by far the best for students, according to the report. Federal loans usually come with lower interest rates that are capped and do not fluctuate, and offer students the chance to defer payments when they experience layoffs or other hardships.

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Private loans, meanwhile, carry none of those protections.

“Private student loans are one of the riskiest ways to pay for college,” according to the report. “No more a form of financial aid than a credit card, private student loans typically have uncapped variable interest rates that are highest for those who can least afford them.”

The report may be useful for future college students and their parents, as it lists schools where students graduate with high debt loads versus schools where students graduate with more manageable debt. Many of the more high-debt institutions are private, non-profit art schools, including the California Institute of the Arts and Minneapolis College of Art and Design.

Many of the low-debt schools are public institutions that are not considered to be the premier universities of their state systems, including California State University-Bakersfield and University of Alaska Southeast.

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Update: An earlier version of this story included the Cleveland Institute of Art as one of the schools from which students graduate with the highest loan debt. This was based on an administrative error by the institute, which reported incorrect data to the Common Data Set survey, which was used as the basis for the Project on Student Debt’s report. Actually students of the institute graduate with an average $37,618 in school-related debt, which is less than other schools at the top of the project’s list.

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