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Most New Jersey college students started classes over the past week or two preparing for a lifetime of work that will begin for many with a mountain of debt.
On graduating from a four-year degree-granting college or university in the state in the spring of 2012, the average graduate who received a bachelor's degree also got a notice to begin paying off almost $30,000 in loans, according to The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS). Its Project on Student Debt ranked New Jersey's college grads eighth in the nation for having the most debt. The total of $29,287 in loans in 2012 is about 6 percent more than in 2011 and 36 percent more than the $21,459 in debt racked up by the Class of 2007.
Almost two-thirds of all graduates in 2012 left college with some sort of debt, a figure that has not changed much in recent years -- up from 62 percent in 2009 but down from 68 percent in 2007, the data shows. That was less than the national average of 71 percent in 2012.
"A college degree remains the best route to finding a job in this tight market," said Lauren Asher, TICAS president, in unveiling the report. "Students and families need to know that debt levels can vary widely from college to college."
Five New Jersey colleges, all of them private, reported that more than three-quarters of undergrads who earned a degree in 2012 had at least some loans. Centenary College in Hackettstown did not report that data, but in 2011, all of its graduates left in debt. William Paterson University, a public college, and the College of St. Elizabeth also did not report debt data, and are not required to do so, according to TICAS.
Ranking among the 20 public schools with the highest debt loads nationwide were four state schools -- New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University, The College of New Jersey, and The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. None of the state's private bachelor degree-granting colleges landed among the list of the 20 with the highest debt loads.
One New Jersey school, and this may be a surprise, made the list of those across the country with the lowest debt loads: Princeton University. The state's Ivy League institution was the third most expensive in New Jersey -- behind Stevens Institute of Technology and Drew University -- for students living on campus in 2012, costing almost $54,000. But it had the lowest average debt for grads, at just over $5,000, or less than 10 percent of the total cost. That was far less than the next lowest loan total -- $19,233 at New Jersey City University in Jersey City.
The study found that one-fifth of student debt was in private loans, which are more costly and less forgiving than federal student loans, according to TIGAS. Its report,, calls for a number of reforms to lessen the burden on students. For instance, it recommends that Congress double the maximum size of Pell Grants, improve online tools meant to help students estimate college costs, require better reporting by colleges of student debts and outcomes, reduce reliance on private loans, and reward or punish schools based on loan defaults.
Some New Jersey legislators have taken steps to try to make getting a college education in the state more affordable. Assembly members Celeste Riley (D-Salem) and Joseph Cryan (D-Union) have introduced a package of 20 higher education bills, some of which seek to help blunt the cost of college. Among those are bills that would require greater transparency of costs on college websites, mandate the use of online textbooks and used-text buyback programs, provide a state income tax deduction for student loan interest paid, prohibit schools from forcing students to buy a meal plan, and freeze the initial tuition a student pays in New Jersey for the next nine semesters. The last bill,, could save students as much as $10,000 over six years, according to Cryan.
"Under the tuition freeze proposal, the same price you pay at the start of college would be the same price you pay after four and a half years, no exceptions," he said. "Colleges can raise tuition and fees for each subsequent class, but individual students will have the security of knowing they can graduate at the same price that they started at and plan accordingly."
The Assembly Higher Education Committee has begun holding hearings on the package, but none of the bills has moved yet.