California college students’ average debt among lowest in nation

Students cross the campus at Cal State L.A. Just 51% of graduates from California's public and private nonprofit colleges took on student debt, compared with 66% nationwide, and those loan totals averaged $18,879, which was about $7,700 below the national average.
(Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

Despite protests about rising tuition at California’s public colleges, students in the state graduate with one of the lowest average loads of education debt in the nation, according to a new study.

The Cal Grant financial aid program and the relatively low tuition at the California State University system helped rank California as third from the bottom in the country for the amount of debt owed by 2011 graduates from schools here, said the report by the Oakland-based Institute for College Access and Success.

Just 51% of graduates from California’s public and private nonprofit colleges took on student debt, compared with 66% nationwide, and those loan totals averaged $18,879, which was about $7,700 below the national average.

Only students in Utah, $17,227, and Hawaii, $17,447, had smaller loan totals, the survey found. The high debt states were clustered in the Northeast and Midwest, with New Hampshire, $32,440, and Pennsylvania, $29,959, at the top.


Debbie Cochrane, the institute’s research director and coauthor of the Project on Student Debt, said California’s average low debt was not a surprise because of taxpayer-supported Cal Grants and additional aid for needy students at Cal State and University of California campuses.

“We as a state have a more robust, integrated financial aid system than many other states do,” she said. Also, she said, California has a high percentage of students attending public colleges and the Cal State tuition remains a good deal, although UC charges significantly more.

The report focused on students who started college before the recession fully hit and before some more recent Cal State and UC tuition increases. So Cochrane said it is uncertain whether the state will maintain such a favorable ranking.

The study is incomplete because it relied on the colleges to report data and some did not. Since so few for-profit colleges participated, that group was not included even though some for-profit colleges have been criticized for very high student debt. In addition, the study did not account for students who transferred to four-year schools from community colleges.


Many factors affected loan amounts, including the size of a school’s endowment to support scholarships and how many of the students need grants or loans.

Pomona College, which has large resources for generous financial aid, was among the campuses with the lowest graduation debt in the nation, $7,540 for the 41% of its graduates with loans.

Among other California schools were Cal State Northridge, 43% in debt with an average of $16,172; Cal State Dominguez Hills, 54% with an average of $11,783; UCLA, 44% with $18,814; UC Irvine, 49% with $18,719; Occidental College, 55% with $27,119; and Loyola Marymount University, 60% with $31,246.

The study urges students to shop around for colleges and to apply widely for financial aid. It also tells them not to be scared off by the debt, which increased 5% over the Class of 2010, because students who finish college have much higher employment rates and salaries than those with only a high school diploma.