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November 07. 2011 9:48PM

NH students rise to top of national debt list


Saint Anslem College students are concerned about rising college costs. New Hampshire leads the country in student debt load, according to a new report. Clockwise from left: Freshman Ryan Sandford, David Shaw, Kevin Roller and Matt Gonnella. (TED SIEFER/UNION LEADER)

A new report says college students in New Hampshire graduated with more loan debt last year than anywhere else in the country.

The report comes as students face further tuition hikes and reductions in financial aid due to budget cuts enacted this year — and it's fanning the political debate over higher education funding in the Granite State.

New Hampshire college and university graduates in 2010 had on average $31,048 in debt, the most in the country, according to the study by the Project on Student Debt. New Hampshire also has the second-greatest proportion of students with debt, 74 percent.

The national average for student debt was $25,250, according to the report, “Student Debt and the Class of 2010,” which is released on a yearly basis and is meant to call attention to escalating burden of college costs.

New Hampshire has perennially ranked high on the list of high-debt states, but 2010 marked the first year that it climbed to the top of the charts.

The ranking did not come as a shock to students at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, which had an average debt load of nearly $39,000 for 2010 graduates, 82 percent of whom had debt — among the highest numbers in the state, according to the report.

With brothers and sisters also in college, freshman Ryan Sandford said he's had to forgo the traditional on-campus experience and commute while living with his parents in Bedford.

“There's not as much money to go around,” Sanford said.

The University of New Hampshire, the state's largest, is among the institutions with the highest debt load, according to the report, with students at the Durham campus graduating in 2010 with an average of $32,320 in debt and 76 percent of students relying on loans.

Generally, more expensive and prestigious schools had lower debt loads, thanks to large endowments and scholarship availability, as well as greater parental resources. For example, only half the students at Dartmouth College graduated with debt, which averaged only $18,700.

The student debt load could be worse in coming years; major state budget cuts to the university system and student financial aid went into effect in July.

“In the last session, the legislature eliminated all general fund support for scholarships to students, and there was a nearly 50 percent cut in support for the university system,” said Thomas Horgan, president of the New Hampshire College and University Council. “Students and families are facing real economic challenges.”

The cuts have earned New Hampshire another distinction: In a ranking of declines in state funding for public higher education from 2011 to 2012, New Hampshire led all other states with a 48 percent drop, according to report released this summer by the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. The national average was a 6.1 percent decline in state funding.

House Speaker William O'Brien defended the budget cuts, stressing that excessive public funding and subsidized financial aid helped perpetuate high tuition levels.

“Not only does throwing more and more taxpayer money at funding college education cause more problems than it solves, it inaccurately signals that college attendance is the only route for success in life, insulates an efficient industry for the reality of market needs, and imposes taxes on average working families and blue collar workers to fund others' tuition,” O'Brien said in a statement.

A spokesman for Gov. John Lynch, who backed the cuts in state financial aid but opposed the cut in university system funding, said the student debt levels are concerning.

“The governor is concerned that more and more New Hampshire students are accumulating debt to help pay for school,” said spokesman Colin Manning. “We need a well-educated workforce to succeed in the future. That's why he opposed the cutting the budget for the university system by about 50 percent.”

For University of New Hampshire student body President A.J. Coukos, there was plenty of blame to go around for the growing burden of college costs.

“I think students are really upset and frustrated right now. I think many of us feel that the state has turned its back on us,” Coukos said. “One reaps what one sows. I don't think the state fully appreciates the impact of cutting funding as much as has.”

The economic downturn compounds the debt problem for new graduates, according to the Project on Student Debt report, which notes that the unemployment rate for college graduates rose from 8.7 percent in 2009 to 9.1 percent in 2010, the highest annual rate on record.

The report is an initiative of the Institute for College Access and Success, “a nonprofit independent research and policy organization dedicated to making college more available and affordable to people of all backgrounds,” according to its website.

Saint Anselm junior Molly Burgess echoed concerns about the prospect of graduating with a lot of debt.

“It makes me nervous because there's so many people exactly like us,” she said. “It's not like we didn't work hard or that we're not smart enough, but there's going to be 30,000 people in the same boat.”


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