Updated on 07.15.16

10 Worst States for Student Loan Debt

Time and again, statistics show that a college degree is a good investment. College graduates make more money cumulatively, studies show, helping them achieve greater wealth over the course of their lifetimes.

A recent study from Georgetown University analyzed educational achievement and wage data to highlight this disparity. What they found: Those with a bachelor’s degree earn around 84% more over the course of their lifetimes. Translated into dollars and cents, that means a bachelor’s degree is worth as much as $2.8 million dollars on average. And, no matter how you cut it, that’s a lot of money.

Sadly, college graduates from recent years aren’t feeling rich yet. They’ve got student loan debt to contend with – and more of it than any other generation before them. Current student loan debt sits at record levels – currently over $1.3 trillion cumulatively, and growing a reported $2,726 every second.

Got Debt? Best Student Loan Refinancing Companies


10 States With the Worst Student Loan Debt

Nationwide, 69% of graduating seniors had some student loan debt in 2014, at an average balance of $28,950, according to a study by the Institute for College Access & Success. However, students in some states are carrying a bigger burden than others.

Factoring in both the percentage of graduates with student loans and the average amount owed, here are the states with the most student loan debt in the U.S. (data is for 2014 graduates of four-year institutions in each state):

No. 10: Illinois

  • Average student loan debt: $28,984
  • Pct. of students graduating with debt: 67%

At the University of Chicago, only 41% of graduates leave school with student loan debt averaging $23,323. But unfortunately that’s not the case at many other Illinois colleges. At Eastern Illinois University, for example, 82% of students graduated with an average debt load of $31,219 in 2014.

No. 9: Ohio

  • Average student loan debt: $29,353
  • Pct. of students graduating with debt: 67%

While students of the Ohio State University system fare better than the national average when it comes to student loan debt, with 56% leaving school with an average of $26,830 in loans, other Ohio students don’t get off so easy. At Cincinnati Christian University, for example, 86% of graduating seniors owed an average of $32,675 in loans.

No. 8: Wisconsin

  • Average student loan debt: $28,810
  • Pct. of students graduating with debt: 70%

While there are plenty of affordable four-year schools in Wisconsin — such as the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus in Madison, where only 51% of seniors graduated with loans — others leave graduates with a pretty big debt burden. Four out of every five (82%) Northland College graduates owed an average of $30,637 upon graduation, while two thirds (67%) of Lawrence University’s departing senior class owed an average of $33,755.

No. 7: Iowa

  • Average student loan debt: $29,732
  • Pct. of students graduating with debt: 68%

While Iowa offers an otherwise low cost of living, students there carry more than their share of student loan debt. In 2014, the burden averaged out to $29,732 for the 68% of graduating students with loan debt in 2014.

Some schools dramatically drove up the average. In 2014, that list included Wartburg College, a small liberal arts school where 80% of 2014 graduates left school with average debt of $39,414, and Grand View University, a four-year school where an astounding 89% of graduates need to pay back $38,160.

No. 6: Rhode Island

  • Average student loan debt: $31,841
  • Pct. of students graduating with debt: 65%

Rhode Island is small state where relatively few schools compete for student education dollars, which is perhaps its downfall in terms of cost – and in terms of student debt burden. In 2014, 65% of graduates left Rhode Island schools owing $31,841.

In 2014, Roger Williams University saw 68% of its students graduate with an average debt of $40,612. Bryant University, meanwhile, left 78% of its 2014 graduates owing an average of $39,283.

No. 5: Delaware

  • Average student loan debt: $33,808
  • Pct. of students graduating with debt: 62%

Another small state, Delaware has very few schools — many of them expensive — which drives up the average price, and debt burden, tremendously. While students at Delaware State University paid in-state tuition of just $7,336 during the 2014-15 academic year, 89% of seniors walked out the door with average debt of $38,702. Ouch. 

No. 4: Maine

  • Average student loan debt: $30,908
  • Pct. of students graduating with debt: 68%

College tends to be even more expensive in the northeast, and that includes Maine. Sadly, 68% of students there were saddled with an average debt burden of $30,908 in 2014, and this is despite the fact that the relatively small state boasts a wealth of public and private four-year institutions.

Obviously, some Maine colleges charged more and left students on the hook with bigger balances. In 2014, the colleges that left students with the most dent included the Maine Maritime Academy, which left 88% of students owing an average of $40,909, and Thomas College, where an astounding 95% of students graduated owing $36,278 on average.

No. 3: Minnesota

  • Average student loan debt: $31,579
  • Pct. of students graduating with debt: 70%

Higher education is taken seriously in Minnesota, with 32.6% of adults holding a bachelor’s degree or better in 2013 according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. Unfortunately, that dedication has manifested into student loan debt for more than two thirds of the state’s students, to the tune of $31,579 on average for 2014 graduates.

The College of Saint Scholastica did the worst by far in 2014, saddling 77% of its students with average debt of $42,792. Another poor performer in 2014 was St. Catherine University, where 87% of students left owing $39,748.

No. 2: Pennsylvania

  • Average student loan debt: $33,264
  • Pct. of students graduating with debt: 70%

With 45 public, four-year schools competing for students, one might assume Pennsylvania is a state where competition is high and prices are low. In reality, Pennsylvania took the No. 4 spot on our list of the worst states for college affordability last year, with average in-state tuition and fees of $13,395 at public colleges. Indeed, across almost all of Pennsylvania State University’s 24 campuses, students graduated 2014 with an average debt burden of $36,935.

No. 1: New Hampshire

  • Average student loan debt: $33,410
  • Pct. of students graduating with debt: 76%

The fact that New Hampshire students leave school drowning in debt shouldn’t surprise anyone. Because of the high cost of tuition in the state – $15,160 on average for public, in-state schools – the state also took the top spot on our list of worst states for college affordability.

Unfortunately, the high cost of tuition at both public and private universities translates directly into high student debt levels. In New Hampshire, the worst reported offenders in 2014 were Franklin Pierce University, where 86% of 2014 graduates left school with loans averaging $38,546, and the University of New Hampshire, where 79% of graduates left with an average of $36,965 in loans. And at Keene State College, another public four-year school, 85% of students graduated with debt averaging $33,796.

university of new hampshire - states with worst student loan debt

Photo: University of New Hampshire

The Bottom Line

Students across the country are leaving school with more than a college degree and a sense of accomplishment; they’re leaving with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans that must be paid back.

Sadly, these loans represent more than a bill in the mail for many. Being thrust into adulthood with so much debt often means delaying many of life’s major milestones – perhaps waiting longer to buy a home, get married, or have a first child. Worse, it often means repaying the money for years – and even decades – at a time when they would otherwise be growing their wealth.

Did your state make the list? Do you know anyone dealing with crushing student loan debt?

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