This week, President Obama booked appearances at three flagship public universities to talk about college affordability and urge Congress to keep federal student loan interest rates at 3.4 percent instead of the usual 6.8 percent for another year.
Obama’s first visits were to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Colorado in Boulder, campuses where students take on less debt than the average college student, according to a Project on Student Debt report.
On Wednesday, Obama plans to visit the University of Iowa, which has the opposite problem. The average University of Iowa senior in 2010 had loans totalling $27,391, higher than the national average of $25,250. The state of Iowa has one of the highest rates of student loan debt in the country ($29,598), just behind Maine ($29,983) and New Hampshire ($31,048).
Student loan debt is an issue that affects millions of people, even more so than credit card debt. For the Class of 2010, at least two-thirds of seniors took on some form of student loan debt. This debt is generally higher at private institutions than at public ones. Last year, the amount of outstanding student loans hit more than $1 trillion.
Already, Obama and Mitt Romney are both using the issue to reach young voters ahead of the presidential election this fall.
Here’s a little more about the student loan track records of the three schools Obama picked to visit this week:
University of North Carolina
When it comes to student loan debt, UNC is a school that bucks the trend. For the Class of 2011, just 35 percent of students borrowed money to pay for school. Their average debt was $15,472, lower than the national average of more than $25,000, according to the university. When you adjust that average for inflation, UNC says its 2011 graduates are taking on less debt than students who graduated a decade ago.
UNC’s tuition is on the lower end for major public research universities. For this academic year, the tuition-alone sticker price for North Carolina residents was just over $7,000, while out-of-state students have a rate of $26,834. The university has a robust transfer program set up for students to transfer into UNC from local community colleges, and 80 percent of undergraduates graduate within four years.
UNC also offers the Carolina Covenant, a debt-free education for qualified low-income students using Pell grants, work study funding, state aid and university funds. Since it started in 2003, the program has become a national model and has been replicated at more than 90 schools.
Statewide, more than half of seniors at four-year public and private universities in 2010 had student loan debt averaging $20,959, according to the report.
Even some of the state’s big-name private universities had student loan debt rates that were below the national average for the Class of 2010. The average at Duke University was $21,884, and at Davidson College it was $23,233.
Some of the universities with the highest rates in the state include Elon University at $27,163, Meredith College at $33,691, Methodist University at $30,786, Mid-Atlantic Christian University at $32,413, and Wake Forest University at $32,237.
University of Colorado at Boulder
For the Class of 2010, less than half of students took out student loans and they had an average debt of $19,758, according to the report. Tuition for most full-time undergraduates this school year is $9,152 for in-state students and $30,330 for out-of-state students.
For all college students in Colorado, more than half of the Class of 2010 had education debt and the average amount is $22,017, according to the report. All of the state’s public institutions have averages that are less than the national average, except for Colorado School of Mines, where the average is $28,126. Other schools with high rates include Nazarene Bible College at $31,211 and Regis University at $29,590.
University of Iowa
The Project on Student Loan Debt found that Iowa had one of the highest rates of student loan debt, despite its relatively low cost of living and reputation for Midwestern thriftiness.
In 2010, nearly three-fourths of Iowa seniors had some sort of student loan debt. Their average bill: $29,598. All four of its major public universities in the state had an average debt load that was higher than the national average.
Obama plans to meet Wednesday with five Iowa students — two sophomores, two juniors and one senior — who receive Stafford federal student loans. All five students attended high school in Iowa and at least three of them work part-time jobs, according to biographies released by the White House.
One is the oldest of four and would be the first in her family to receive a college degree. Another is the son of a single mother who is unemployed. One of the other students in the group plans to graduate a semester early to save money.
For the Class of 2010, more than half of University of Iowa graduates took out student loans, and they had an average of $27,391 in debt. At Iowa State University, the average graduate had $30,062 in debt, one of the highest rates in the country for a public university. At the University of Northern Iowa, the average was $25,735.
The averages were even higher at many private universities in Iowa: Buena Vista University at $37,502, Central College at $34,237, Clarke College at $38,847, Coe College at $33,260, Drake University at $35,027, Graceland University at $31,404, Grand View University at $33,222, Loras College at $30,790, Luther College at $33,492, Morningside College at $38,411, Saint Ambrose University at $32,530, Simpson College at $34,214, and University of Dubuque at $41,399.
What is going on in Iowa? Here’s what the Associated Press reports is happening: “Policymakers point to a variety of reasons for the problem, including a shortage of state grants and scholarships, household income that is below the national average and has not kept up with tuition increases, more students attending costlier private schools, and policies that have encouraged borrowing from private lenders.”