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Posted at 10:48 AM ET, 10/18/2012

Colleges with highest debt levels are not big-name schools, report finds

Quite often the story of the burden of student loan debt is told through the most extreme cases — such as an Ivy League graduate with more than $100,000 in student loan debt who is struggling to find a job or pay the bills. I know that you have heard the “horror stories” of crushing debt levels that seem almost abstract in their monstrous size.

But the average experience of average graduates is also daunting. For the Class of 2011, two-thirds of graduates had debt, and the average amount was $26,600, a new high, according to a report released Thursday by The Project on Student Debt.

Gan Golan, of Los Angeles, dressed as the "Master of Degrees” during Occupy DC activities in Washington in 2011. (Jacquelyn Martin - Associated Press)
The report includes a list of 20 private and 20 public universities or colleges that had “very high average debt levels” for the Class of 2011. The thing that always surprises me about these lists: The schools are often not the big-name elite schools with annual price tags well over $50,000. Instead, these are mostly schools that are relatively unknown outside their regions — like the College of Mount Joseph in Ohio and Green Mountain College in Vermont. (Keep in mind that this report is based on information self-reported by 1,057 schools. Many decided not to participate, including six schools that made the high-debt list last year.)

For example, let’s take a look at two schools in New Jersey: Princeton University, a private Ivy League where the total sticker price cost of attending in 2010-2011 was $52,715. And Rowan University, a public school where the cost was less than half at $25,174.

For Princeton graduates in 2011, less than one quarter graduated with debt, and the average amount was $5,330. At Rowan, 72 percent of graduates had debt, and the average amount was $31,895.

There are a lot of factors that go into that divide: Rowan has far more Pell Grant recipients, who are often likely to need loan money for expenses not covered by the grant. Princeton, meanwhile, has an endowment valued at more than $17 billion.

Still, it’s a startling divide — and one that plays out in many states. The lesson for students applying to college (especially low-income students without much cash on hand) is this: Don’t write off the big-name, expensive schools as being out of your league. Don’t assume that a smaller school with a smaller price tag will be more affordable. Utilize the net price calculators schools are now required to have on their Web sites. Keep your options open, look at a range of schools and carefully study your financial aid offers.

Here are the lists:

“High-debt” private colleges and universities

College of Mount St. Joseph (Ohio)

Curry College (Mass.)

Dominican University of California (Ca.)

Franklin Pierce University (N.H.)

Green Mountain College (Vt.)

Johnson C Smith University (N.C.)

La Salle University (Pa.)

La Sierra University (Ca.)

Lawrence Technological University (Mich.)

Minneapolis College of Art and Design (Minn.)

New England College (N.H.)

Nova Southeastern University (Fl.)

Robert Morris University (Pa.)

Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology (Ind.)

Sacred Heart University (Ct.)

Salve Regina University (R.I.)

The College of Saint Scholastica (Minn.)

University of New Haven (Ct.)

Wheelock College (Mass.)

Widener University-Main Campus (Pa.)

“High-debt” public colleges and universities

Alabama A & M University (Ala.)

Albany State University (Ga.)

Bowling Green State University-Main Campus (Ohio)

Delaware State University (Del.)

Ferris State University (Mich.)

Indiana University of Pennsylvania-Main Campus (Pa.)

Kentucky State University (Ky.)

Maine Maritime Academy (Me.)

Michigan Technological University (Mich.)

Morgan State University (Md.)

Pennsylvania State University (multiple campuses)

Rowan University (N.J.)

Southern Illinois University Carbondale (Ill.)

Temple University (Pa.)

The College of New Jersey (N.J.)

The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey (N.J.)

University of Alaska Fairbanks (Alaska)

University of New Hampshire-Main Campus (N.H.)

University of North Alabama (Ala.)

University of North Dakota (N.D.)

“Low-debt” colleges and universities

Augusta State University (Ga.)

Berea College (Ky.)

California State University-Bakersfield (Ca.)

California State University-Sacramento (Ca.)

Clarion University of Pennsylvania (Pa.)

College of Saint Elizabeth (N.J.)

College of the Ozarks (Mo.)

CUNY Hunter College (N.Y.)

CUNY York College (N.Y.)

Dalton State College (Ga.)

Elizabeth City State University (N.C.)

Ferrum College (Va.)

Lane College (Tenn.)

Mount Carmel College of Nursing (Ohio)

Pomona College (Ca.)

Princeton University (N.J.)

University of Houston-Clear Lake (Texas)

University of Maine at Fort Kent (Me.)

Williams College (Mass.)

Yale University (Ct.)

This post was updated on Thursday afternoon.

By  |  10:48 AM ET, 10/18/2012

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