Charting Student Loan Debt Across the Garden State

Which New Jersey students leave school with the most debt? Which are carrying the least?

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The typical young adult graduating from a New Jersey college last year left owing more than $28,000 in student loans, according to a report released Thursday.

If there is good news in the annual college debt report from Lend EDU, a student loan and refinancing marketplace, it’s that the average debt load for the Class of 2016 was about 7.5 percent lower than for the previous class. The total of $28,233 is the average for the 62 percent of graduates of New Jersey colleges and universities who took out loans during their years in school.

Those figures apply to all students attending school in New Jersey; they do not necessarily hail from the Garden State. And they include students who attended any public or private school in New Jersey, whether it was Rutgers or Princeton.

New Jersey grads’ total debt was slightly higher than the national average of $27,975, but significantly below neighboring Pennsylvania colleges, whose students had the highest debt load of $35,185. Utah college grads left with the smallest amount of loans, just $18,810. Utah also had the smallest percentage of college grads in debt — 39 percent — while the highest proportion attended school in West Virginia, where more than three quarters had taken out loans.

Right in the middle

While New Jersey’s graduate-debt ranking was right in the middle of all the states, the issue has been a priority in the Legislature for more than a year as lawmakers have sought ways to ease the ever-increasing cost of tuition and fees and high debt burdens, as well as reform the New Jersey Higher Education Student Assistance Authority, which offers loans to state students. That authority came under fire for questionable lending and collection practices in news reports and at a legislative hearing.

Legislators, students and advocates have complained about the high cost of public college in New Jersey, blaming in part the state’s continual cuts to higher education funding. According to the College Board, New Jersey’s average cost for tuition and fees only — excluding room and board — for in-state students at a four-year public college or university last year totaled $13,560, the fourth most expensive of all the states in the nation. Only New Hampshire, Vermont, and Pennsylvania had higher costs.

The LendEDU report shows that 2016 graduates of the New Jersey Institute of Technology, a public university, had the highest debt load of all state schools. Almost two-thirds of the grads had taken out loans and the total owed was about $41,000. That amount was the 52nd highest of all colleges in the nation.

Matthew Golden, chief strategy officer at the Newark polytechnic higher education school, said one driver of student debt is the type of education it provides.

“Many of our students are in disciplines with very rigorous course loads that require more than the traditional four years to complete,” he said. “We also incur far greater costs for science and technology faculty as well as high-technology facilities and equipment than do most universities. Additionally, NJIT proudly serves as a launching pad for many first-generation college students as well as students from lower-income families. A number of our students simply are not in position to fund their education without taking out loans.”

Increasing financial rewards

He said NJIT has tried to mitigate these challenged by increasing financial aid awards, moderating tuition increases and implementing support programs that have improved “timely graduation rates.” He also said that the school’s graduates are in a financially better position on leaving NJIT than the average college student.

“NJIT’s graduates are in high demand,” said Golden, noting reports of 1.3 million vacant jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields each year and not nearly enough graduates to fill those positions. “NJIT students average multiple job offers in hand by graduation and attain average starting salaries almost 20 percent higher than the national average.” 

Princeton University again had both the smallest percentage of graduates leaving with debt — 18 percent — and the lowest amount of loans, $8,908 per borrower. The university has one of the largest endowments of U.S. colleges and provides students with significant amounts of need-based aid. According to its website, the average grant for a student receiving aid in the Class of 2020 was $48,000. The university had the ninth lowest debt load for students of all private universities in the United States.

“Princeton’s pioneering financial-aid program ensures that every qualified student can attend the University,” said Daniel Day, Princeton’s assistant vice president for communications. “About 60 percent of the university’s undergraduates receive financial aid, which comes in the form of grants that do not need to be repaid.”

The school with the largest increase in average graduate debt was Rider University in Lawrenceville, which had an increase of more than one quarter to $36,032. St. Peter’s University in Jersey City had the biggest decline, 7.7 percent to $29,724 on average.

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