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Student loans

College Admissions Officers Say $20,000 in Student Debt Is NBD

Every year, Inside Higher Ed anonymously surveys college admissions directors about a host of hot topics in their field. Given all the attention to the ever-growing mound of student debt, the survey for the past two years has included an intriguing question for the officers: How much debt is “reasonable” for a student to accumulate over four years in school?

The responses boil down to “quite a lot”—especially at private colleges. Here’s the key chart:

Debt Level Public Private
No debt at all 2% 2%
Under $5,000 2% 1%
$5,000 to less than $10,000 11% 3%
$10,000 to less than $20,000 36% 18%
$20,000 to less than $30,000 33% 48%
$30,000 to less than $40,000 12% 18%
$40,000 to less than $50,000 3% 6%
$50,000 and more 1% 2%

This means that almost three-quarters of private admissions directors think taking out more than $20,000 is fine, and a quarter of them think that taking out $30,000 also isn’t a problem. For public admissions directors, half say $20,000 is no big deal, and just 15 percent say $30,000 or more is acceptable. In general, the report also shows that admissions officers are becoming more comfortable with student debt. Last year, 22 percent said debt of more than $30,000 was fine. That figure rose to 25 percent this year.

How does that compare with reality? About two-thirds of students take out loans, and on average they graduate with $26,600 in debts, according to the Project on Student Debt. So debt is already approaching a level—$30,000—that’s unacceptable to 84 percent of public school admissions officers and three-quarters of private school officials.

While the admissions officers may not like where student debt is heading, other findings of the Inside Higher Ed survey show that schools generally are not pursuing policies that would reduce it. For example, as ProPublica pointed out, admissions officers said they are looking to dole out merit aid to attract students. While more grants at first may seem to reduce debt, merit aid is increasingly going to students who need it the least—leaving less wealthy students to depend more on loans. Circle: vicious.


Weise is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @kyweise.

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