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August 28, 2003

Pitt student incurred debt rises

Pitt jumped 101 spots in one of the categories in U.S. News & World Report’s 20th annual “best colleges” rankings — and it’s not to the good.

In addition to ranking more than 1,300 institutions by categories developed by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and by a number of indicators of academic quality, the magazine annually ranks national universities whose undergraduates carried the heaviest and lightest loads of incurred debt upon graduation.

Last year, Pitt ranked 109th among the 162 public universities that grant Ph.D.s, making the “least debt” incurred list. For 2002 graduates, Pitt vaulted to 8th among the same publics, landing on the “most debt” list.
According to the magazine’s on-line premium edition, which is the source for this story, the data include loans taken out by students from the colleges themselves, from financial institutions, and from federal, state and local governments. Parents’ loans are not included in the data.

The data indicate 1) what percentage of the student body has taken on debt at graduation, and 2) the “average amount of debt,” that is, the average cumulative amount borrowed by those students who incurred debt, not the average for all students. According to last year’s U.S. News rankings, the percentage of Pitt 2001 grads with incurred debt was 60 percent, with an average of $16,000.

While the 60 percent rate did not change in this year’s ranking, the average cumulative amount of debt incurred by Pitt’s 2002 graduates was $20,154, 8th highest among the 162 public universities nationally.

According to Betsy Porter, director of Admissions and Financial Aid, whose office generates the numbers, “These figures represent our best good faith estimates. There is no way to reach an absolute number [for this ranking]. The numbers we provide are extrapolated from a sampling taken from our student Data Warehouse,” the computer program that serves as a repository for Pitt’s student statistics.

According to Porter, variables that make the figures problematic include: whether the sample contains a higher number of out-of-state students, for whom tuition is higher and likely more student borrowing is needed; and whether institutions that have branch campuses are including figures for graduates of their two-year programs who would incur less debt than their four-year counterparts. (Pitt reports Pittsburgh campus figures only, she added.)

“What is clear is that student indebtedness for public universities in Pennsylvania historically is higher because, as you know, our state funds public education at a lower rate than almost any other state and tuition rates tend to be higher as a result,” Porter said. “As we’re seeing more public universities’ tuition nationwide rise by double digits, this could begin evening out.”

Penn State also ranked on the “most debt” list, both this year and last. According to U.S. News, PSU reported 69 percent of 2002 grads with incurred debt, averaging $17,900 (32nd highest among the 162 public universities). Those figures compare with 66 percent, and $17,450 in average incurred debt for 2001 graduates — 27th highest — on last year’s list.

According to this year’s magazine, the public university with the least debt incurred among its 2002 graduates is Texas A&M University-Commerce, with 40 percent of its graduates with incurred debt, averaging $5,182.

The public with the most student incurred debt nationally is the University of North Dakota. The percent of their 2002 graduates with debt is 66 percent, averaging $24,086.

—Peter Hart

Filed under: Feature,Volume 36 Issue 1

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