Average student debt increased 6 percent in New Jersey in 2015, according to the annual report released Tuesday by the Project on Student Debt.
Two of every three students who graduated from four-year colleges in New Jersey last year borrowed money to earn that degree. They owed an average of $30,104, up from $28,314 in 2014.
The state ranks 11th highest nationally in the amount borrowed and 8th for the percentage of students with debt, according to the report.
Nationally, student loan debt increased 4 percent in 2015 to an average of $30,100. About 68 percent of graduates have student loans.
Locally, Stockton University is somewhat bucking the trend of rising debt.
Average student debt dropped slightly for the third year in a row, to $33,201. This was down from a high of $34,398 in 2012. But the number of students with debt is rising, with 77 percent of graduates owing some money, up from 74 percent in 2012.
Stockton Dean of Enrollment Management John Iacovelli said the numbers reflect both the still-struggling economy of South Jersey and efforts by the university to control costs.
He said the almost $14 million the college contributes toward financial aid and the flat-rate tuition, which lets students take as many as 20 credits per semester, have had an impact, as have financial aid workshops to help students manage their debt.
“Every little bit helps,” Iacovelli said. “Students are more aware of the issue.”
Students interviewed at Stockton on Tuesday all said they would have some debt, although the amounts varied.
Danny Komack, 20, of Freehold, a sophomore history and education major, said his parents are helping him pay for college. He hopes to graduate in 2019 with no more than $20,000 in debt.
“I am taking loans, but not as much as some people because my parents are helping,” he said.
Senior Kaitlin Joisher, 21, of Bayville, is worried about her debt since she is graduating from Stockton this spring and applying to graduate school to become a physician assistant, which will generate even more debt.
She gets some assistance through Pell Grants and the work study program but has still had to borrow money. She said since physician assistant is a well-paying job, she is hoping the debt will be manageable.
Several students said starting at a less-expensive community college reduced their debt.
Stephanie Feldman, 24, of Howell, said she made it through two years at Brookdale Community College with no debt, as financial aid covered the cost. But now, as a social work major at Stockton, she is borrowing about $12,000 a year.
She said she chose a state public college because the cost would be lower but also has the cost of living on campus. She’s applying for scholarships to help lower the cost of her senior year.
“I am well aware that I am not going to make a lot of money,” she said. “But I will love what I am doing. I just want to live comfortably.”
Statewide, of the colleges reporting, the New Jersey Institute of Technology had the highest average debt among public colleges, at $37,195, and Stevens Institute of Technology had the highest average debt among private colleges, at $48,244.
The average dept at Rowan University was $31,762, with 73 percent of students graduating with debt.
The report notes that almost two-thirds of all loan debt from state programs is generated by just three states: New Jersey, Texas and Minnesota.
New Jersey state legislators have introduced bills to try to control the cost of college and the impact of debt. Proposals would allow income-based repayments for state student loans; provide free tuition to qualified low-income students who attend two-year colleges, then transfer to a four-year school; and provide free college credits for high school students in dual-enrollment programs.
Data released this year by the U.S. Department of Education show about 9 percent of students defaulting on their student loans within three years after graduation.
The rate tends to be higher among community college borrowers and lower among four-year college borrowers. Stockton had a loan default rate of 5 percent, while Atlantic Cape Community College’s default rate was 14 percent.
A separate report released Tuesday by the Student Loan Report looked at average student debt as spread among all graduates, not just those who borrowed money.
It showed New Jersey has an average student debt of $19,242, ranking it 38th in the nation from lowest to highest.