published Friday, November 9th, 2012

Student debt lower in Tennessee than rest of U.S.

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    Students walk through the center of campus at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in this file photo.
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BY THE NUMBERS

* 66 percent of college seniors who graduated in 2011 had debt.

* The average debt of students is $26,600, a 5 percent increase from the year before.

* A fifth of graduates' debt comes from private loans.

* State average debt ranges from $17,250 to $32,450.

Source: Institute for College Access and Success

STATE BY STATE

* 53 percent of Tennessee graduates have debt

* 54 percent of North Carolina graduates have debt

* 54 percent of Alabama graduates have debt

* 58 percent of Georgia graduates have debt

Source: Institute for College Access and Success

The amount of debt carried by college students is going down.

Last year, the average debt for a U.S. college student was $26,600, a national survey shows. But while regional college debt mounts with rising tuition costs, students in and around the Tennessee Valley are faring better than elsewhere, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, the Institute for College Access and Success.

Student debt in Tennessee -- $20,703 on average -- and North Carolina -- $20,800 on average -- ranks as some of the lowest in the country, according to the survey. Georgia and Alabama remain in the middle.

Dalton State College was listed as one of 20 schools with an average debt burden under $10,000.

"As debt levels rise, fear of loans can prevent students from getting the education they need to succeed," said Lauren Asher, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, in a statement.

Students are feeling the squeeze from every angle. In Tennessee, for example, the price tag for an in-state university education is up 120 percent in the last decade. Tuition in Tennessee jumped from an average of $2,813 in 20011 to $6,190 in 2011, data from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission shows.

At the same time, job prospects for graduates have increased only slightly since the end of the recession. The unemployment rate among recent graduates sank from 9.1 percent in 2010 to 8.8 percent, data shows.

More than 19 percent of young graduates were working part time or looking for work in 2011. Nearly 38 percent of those who did have work were in jobs that didn't require a degree, the survey stated.

Student's say their schooling is still an investment that they worry won't pay off anytime soon.

Twenty-one-year-old Kendall Standridge came to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga to study chemistry and is entering her senior year with nearly $20,000 in debt.

She's kept her state HOPE scholarship, but doesn't qualify for federal aid. Like many middle-income students, she's stuck in the middle.

"My parents make too much for a Pell Grant but not enough to help pay for school," she said.

Every week she works 25 hours waitressing at a Greek restaurant to pay her bills. All the while, her debt continues to climb. With a chemistry degree, Standridge is hopeful about the work world to come. But she had a level of uncertainty fit for the times.

She is thinking about grad school, if she can get a scholarship. If not, who knows, she said.

"It's pretty frustrating to know there are no other options," she said.

about Joan Garrett McClane...

Joan Garrett McClane has been a staff writer for the Times Free Press since August 2007. Before becoming a general assignment writer for the paper, she wrote about business, higher education and the court systems. She grew up the oldest of five sisters near Birmingham, Ala., and graduated with a master's and bachelor's degrees in journalism from the University of Alabama. Before landing her first full-time job as a reporter at the Times Free Press, ...

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