Which states have the highest levels of student debt?

Graduating with a few thousand dollars of debt has become so commonplace that it's now a standard feature of attending college, sort of like bad dorm food. But just how much debt are students saddled with on average? And does that amount vary much from state to state?

New data from Manilla.com, a company that helps consumers manage household accounts online, said Washington area residents carried an average student loan balance of $18,103 in the first three months of the year, the fifth-highest amount in the nation. Residents of Columbia, S.C., took top honors, with an average loan balance of $19,548, followed by those in Las Vegas at $18,588 and Memphis at $18,460.

By comparison, the national average student loan balance hovered at $14,578 in the first quarter, up from $14,441 three months earlier, according to Manilla. The company pulled statistics from markets where it has 100 or more users and only looked at the figures, so data are limited.

But an earlier report, by the Institute for College Access and Success, that gives a more detailed state-by-state look at student debt presents an even grimmer picture. The nonprofit analyzed federal data on private and public four-year colleges in December and found that the class of 2012 graduated with an average $29,400 in loans, a six percent jump from 2008.

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Based on data made public only every four years, the institute said that students graduating from schools in Delaware and New Hampshire had the highest average debt, at $33,649 and $32,698, respectively.

Graduates who donned cap and gowns in the District carried among the lowest levels of debt at $22,109. Those in Maryland were saddled with an average $25,951, while graduates in Virginia had about $25,017 in debt.

There was a heavy concentration of debt in the Northeast and Midwest in part because of the higher proportion of pricey private schools. Still, there were many expensive colleges where students came out with low debt loads, and vice versa, the institute said. About 1,000 private and public four-year colleges submitted individual financial data to the insitute, but for-profit schools declined to give up such information.

So much factors into college debt levels, including cost of living, endowment resources for financial aid, student demographics and state policies. Low-income students, for instance, tend to take out more loans to finance their education, said Matthew Reed, the program director at the institute. And as states have cut their education budgets, the cost of attendance at public colleges has risen to offset the loss of funding.

It's no wonder that 97 percent of Virginia's class of 2012 graduated with debt, since the state reduced higher education funding by 53.6 percent from 1980 to 2011, according to the American Council on Education.

In-state tuition, fees, books and room and board at a public college averaged $22,826 for the 2013-2014 academic year, almost 3 percent higher than the prior year, according to the College Board. Those costs rang up to an average $44,750 at private schools, nearly 4 percent higher than the previous academic year-- and more than many graduates will earn in their first year out of school.

You could draw from these reports that students need to do thorough research before selecting a college, and they should. And parents need to save a whole lot of money, and they do. But the numbers also support another conclusion: Tuition is too damn high, at least that's what lawmakers are starting to say.

Take Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has called on Congress to provide matching funds to states that agree to float more money to public colleges that in turn pledge to do a better job of managing their funds. A leading voice in the fight to make college affordable, Warren also wants the federal government to use its student loan program to encourage colleges to keep costs down -- a carrot-and-stick approach.

These ideas are starting to gain traction, especially as student loan debt now tops $1.2 trillion. Yet getting any sort of legislation through Washington right now is about as likely as universities lowering tuition for the 2014-2015 academic year.

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel covers the banking industry for The Washington Post.
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