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Vernon Ogrodnek

Student debt at New Jersey colleges increased 16 percent in 2011, with six out of 10 students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree owing an average of $27,610 according to a report released today.

The $3,818 increase from 2010’s average debt of $23,792 moved New Jersey to 10th in the nation in average student college debt, up from 21st last year, according to the annual report by The Project on Student Debt.

The 2011 national average debt was $26,600, a 5 percent increase over 2010’s average of $25,250. Two-thirds of all students in the nation graduated with some debt.

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The average student debt at three state public colleges — The College of New Jersey at $32,754, Richard Stockton College at $32,255 and Rowan University at $31,895 — were also listed in the report among the 20 public colleges with the largest student debt. More than 70 percent of graduates at Rowan and Stockton, and 60 percent of TCNJ graduates, had some debt.

Local college officials said they are aware of the debt issue and have taken steps to provide more financial aid to students. But they also noted that reduced state funding over the last several years has pushed more of the cost of college onto students and their families.

Stockton Provost Harvey Kesselman said the data also reflects the impact of college costs on the middle and working class who make up a large part of South Jersey’s population.

Kesselman noted that the report is based on the freshman classes that entered in 2006 and 2007, just before the recession. Middle class families are not eligible for federal Pell grants or state Tuition Aid Grants awarded low-income students, and are less likely to have been able to save the cost of college, so were more likely to take out loans. Families that might have previously refinanced their homes to help pay for college were also less likely to have that option as housing values plummeted during the recession.

The report does not include students who transferred in from another four-year college or a community college.

“We are aware of the debt issue and do take it seriously,” Kesselman said. He said Stockton has increased the amount of money it provides in student financial aid, allocating $12.7 million for 2012-13 in both merit-based and need-based aid, up from $9 million in 2010-11.

Rowan University spokesman Joe Cardona said they have also increased financial aid and revised some policies to help more students.

Officials also noted that colleges that are more residential may be more likely to have students with more debt since students may also borrow money to cover room and board costs.

David Lamando of Landisville in Buena Borough, a member of the Stockton Student Senate, helped organize a student debt awareness event at the college in April. He said students often don’t feel like they have much choice but to borrow if they want to attend college.

“Even if students are aware of the debt, there’s not much we can do about it.” Lamando said.

Students have been holding voter registration drives and the Student Senate plans a rally Tuesday to drum up support for the state bond referendum that would provide $750 million in construction funds for the state colleges. The colleges have been funding their own construction, which has led to increased student fees to pay the debt.

The Student Senate has also been talking about the impact of the presidential election on the future of programs like federal Pell grants and Stafford loans.

The report notes that nationally, the recession resulted in state budget cuts to higher education, forcing larger tuition increases and the need for families to borrow to pay for college. Pell grants and state tuition aid programs also increased, but those only helped low-income students.

The average debt varies widely across colleges both nationally and in the state and show the impact of costs, student financial aid policies and what is called tuition discounting. Average debt at colleges nationally ranged from a low of $3,000 to a high of $55,250 among the 1,057 colleges in the report.

The total cost of attendance at Princeton in 2010-11 was $52,715, almost twice the state public college average of about $27,000 for tuition, room, board and other costs. But due to its generous financial aid policy, only 24 percent of Princeton graduates had debt, averaging just $5,330.

The private Centenary College reported 100 percent of 2011 graduates had debt averaging $40,588. The total annual cost of attendance in 2010-11 was reported as $40,063.

Nationally, Utah had the lowest average student debt at $17,227 and Hampshire had the highest at $32,440, followed by Pennsylvania at $29,959, a popular college state for many New Jersey high school graduates. The report noted that graduates from colleges in the Northeast and Midwest overall had more debt than those in the South and West.

The report also cites the tough job market for graduates as they begin to have to repay their loans. But it says, the 8.8 unemployment rate for young college graduates in 2011 was far better than the 19 percent unemployment rate for recent high school graduates. Still, as many as 19 percent of college graduates were just working part-time, and almost 38 percent were in jobs that did not require a college degree, according to analysis by the Economic Policy Institute.

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