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By Ella Mitchell, Contributing News Editor • June 14, 2024

D.C. students graduate with highest debt rate in country

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On average, graduates from D.C. schools have more college debt than any other parts of the country, according to a recent study.

D.C. graduates leave school with an average of $29,793 in debt – about $6,500 more than the national average, according to the Project on Student Debt . At GW, 2008 graduates had an average of $17,000 in federal loans and $14,000 in private loans – more than $31,000 total, and about $8,000 more than the national average, according to the Office of Institutional Research.

One reason the D.C. average may be so high is because only three private universities – GW, Georgetown and American – provided debt information for the study, said Edie Irons, communications director for the Institute for College Access and Success, which runs the Project on Student Debt. Other private schools and public universities like the University of the District of Columbia, did not participate.

“It looks like American University, GW and Georgetown are the only ones that submitted all of the data. Those are all pretty high-priced colleges, and GW and American have quite high average debts,” Irons said. “It’s important to understand these trends, and it’s useful for students to know what the borrowing situation is at their college. It makes me wonder what’s happening at Catholic University and Gallaudet and Howard and all the other colleges in D.C.”

In September, The Hatchet reported that GW graduates have an average of 13 percent more debt than the national average at private universities.

Senior Rebecca Rowe said she has a student loan from Sallie Mae, the nation’s largest student loan provider, but that she isn’t directly involved with her loan management.

“I’m kind of kept in the dark in terms of financial management with my student loans because my father does it. So I am worried about how much debt I will end up with, you know, once I leave the University,” Rowe said. “Is it going to be something that I can manage on a day-to-day, monthly-to-monthly basis or is it something that I’m going to have to come back to my parents and ask for support for?”

Rowe is not alone in those worries, Irons said. As costs to attend college continue to increase, the average amount of student debt has increased, and grants and scholarships cover less and less of the tuition.

“College, unfortunately, is unaffordable for a lot of families. Funding for grants, both the federal Pell Grant and state-based grants, have not kept pace with the rise of tuition. So families are having to borrow to make up the difference, and grants just cover less of a college education than they used to,” Irons said.

In addition, the weight of loans can smother students for decades after graduation.

“Especially in this economy where unemployment is high and money is tight for everybody, graduating with high debt has a huge impact for students. For example, the national average of $23,200, that comes out to a monthly payment of about $250 a month for ten years, and that’s assuming that you never miss a payment over those ten years,” Irons said. “That means that it can be hard for borrowers to save money, to buy a house, to start a family, to start a business.”

In an effort to combat student debt, the University made a 10 percent increase in undergraduate aid, setting aside $133 million this academic year. The office of Student Financial Assistance saw an 11 percent increase in students applying for aid this year.

“The economy is still having a tough time and people are still feeling the financial crunch,” said Daniel Small, the executive director of Student Financial Assistances. “The reason I think a lot of the increase went up is people not knowing the situation would be affecting them.”

Junior Kevin Robinson, who said he has Stafford loans, Perkins loans, and some state loans, said he’s not worried. He tries to think positively about the job market, and said he thinks he’ll pay the loans off without issue.

“[I’ll have a lot of debt when I graduate] but I think I’ll pay it off. But it’s not going to be as hard as having a private loan. The government is a little more lenient-you get guaranteed rates,” Robinson said. “I’m a music major, so [jobs are] an ever-present quality. But, yea I try not to think about it. I mean if you think, ‘oh I can’t get a job’ then you’re probably setting yourself up for failure.”

Andrea Vittorio and Justine Karp contributed to this report.

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