The Heidepriem campaign sends out a press release on a bothersome statistic about our higher education system: according to 2009 data from the Project on Student Debt, South Dakota has the highest reported percentage of students graduating from college in debt. 78% of our 2009 grads carried student loan debt. The only other states with more than 70% of their college grads carrying debt are Iowa (74%), Minnesota and West Virginia (73%), New Hampshire and Pennsylvania (72%), and North Dakota (71%).
The states with the most students graduating free and clear are Nevada, Utah, Delaware, Arizona, and New Mexico. Even dreaded California manages to issue just over half of its baccalaureate degrees without letters from the bank stapled to the diplomas.
South Dakota isn't quite so bad off when we count actual average debt. By that metric, we rank 17th out of the reporting states (Hawaii and Idaho aren't talking), with the average student owing $23,581 at graduation. The highest average student debt is in the District of Columbia, $30,033. The lowest average student debt load is in Utah, just $12,860.
Within our borders, a whopping 92% of Dakota State University students graduate with debt. That's the highest percentage of any reporting school in the state, even higher than at South Dakota's private colleges. Consider that at Augustana College, tuition and fees are four times higher than at DSU, but 76% graduate with debt. An Augie grad's average debt in 2009 was $29,531 compared to $21,189 at DSU.
And for you SDSU-USD partisans, note that Jackrabbits have a lower proportion of students in debt than Coyotes and the average Jackrabbit debt is lower.
Why would low-tuition South Dakota have such a high proportion of students going into debt to pay for their undergraduate education? Scott Heidepriem contends that Pierre is saddling our valuable students with debt while cutting higher education and throwing money at tax breaks for TransCanada, state planes, no-bid contracts, and the other fiscal malfeasance of the Rounds-Daugaard administration. TransCanada's $10.5-million handout could have knocked $5000 off 2100 graduates' debt. An extra $5000 in spending power in the hands of 2100 new graduates could translate into a lot of down payments on new cars and houses. It could even keep a few more valuable workers in South Dakota, as more college grads could pay off their student loans on South Dakota wages.
Let me venture that our low wages may also contribute to our bad student debt numbers. Even with our relatively low in-state tuition, students have a hard time finding part-time or summer jobs that pay enough to cover their college bills. Thus, more students have to turn to loans and start their careers in the red.
The Project for Student Debt does a good job of explaining how they get their data and the limitations of their study. The information they use is voluntarily reported by the colleges surveyed, so there is a chance that colleges underreport the amount of student debt. But PSD's numbers are the only ones on the table, and they indicate South Dakota's policies are leaving college graduates in a financial lurch that drags down our economy and makes it harder to keep high-value graduates.
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