Student loan debt keeps growing, but new signs of hope

For the first time, the average student loan debt has topped $30,000 per graduate in several states. But there are also signs the $1 trillion crisis is easing, according to two reports released Thursday.

The Oakland, California-based Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) says the average for the class of 2013 topped $30,000 in six states, with others not far behind. The average debt nationwide in 2013 was $28,400, TICAS said, up 3 percent from the year before.

The nonprofit organization's ninth annual report, "Student Debt and the Class of 2013," finds 69 percent of graduates left school with at least some debt.

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"It's getting harder and harder to graduate from college without debt," Lauren Asher, president of TICAS, told CNBC.

Students protest the rising costs of student loans in Los Angeles.
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Students protest the rising costs of student loans in Los Angeles.

The report also notes that debt varies widely from state to state. The six states breaching the $30,000 mark for the first time are New Hampshire, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Minnesota and Connecticut. Maine, Michigan, Iowa and South Carolina are close behind, with average debt topping $29,000.

Not only does New Hampshire lead the nation in average debt at $32,795, but 76 percent of its graduates have some student loan debt, the highest level in the country, the report says.

At the same time, some states are keeping student debt relatively under control. New Mexico boasts the lowest indebtedness in the country, averaging just $18,656.

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The TICAS report and a separate report from the College Board say there is some reason for hope among college grads, as the job market starts to improve and tuition increases slow—and in some cases actually reverse.

And although college tuition is still increasing more than overall inflation, the College Board's "Trends in College Pricing 2014" says schools are starting to hold the line on tuition.

"These price increases are lower than the average annual increases in the past five years, the past 10 years, and the past 30 years," the report says.

For example, in-state tuition at four-year public schools increased just $254 for the current academic year. The 2.9 percent increase marks the first time since 1974-75 that tuition has risen less than 3 percent, the report found.

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According to the report, for-profit colleges, which have come under heavy criticism for their role in the student debt crisis, raised tuition just 1.3 percent on average this year.

Out-of-state tuition at public universities is up 3.3 percent this year, and private four-year institutions have raised prices 3.7 percent, nearly twice the overall rate of inflation.

The College Board says the picture is even brighter when you consider government grants and aid, which are further tamping down tuition increases. In some cases, the report says, tuition is actually going down.

The report says based on "net" pricing—after grants, tax credits, and deductions, tuition has risen 32 percent in the past 10 years, compared with 42 percent the decade before. At four-year private schools, net prices have actually declined 13 percent over the past decade.

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As a result, the College Board says borrowing by students still in school is declining—down 14 percent since 2011. If the trend holds, the average debt per graduate should begin to drop as soon as this year.

Rising tuition has been a major bone of contention in the ongoing student debt crisis. Critics have blamed everything from overbuilding and added student perks at colleges and universities to the relative ease of obtaining student loans and grants. Others have pointed to declining government support for education, forcing schools to rely more heavily on tuition.

Asher said the few glimmers of hope in the latest data do not mean the crisis is over.

"Lower rates of increase in tuition and debt at graduation are good, but they're still increases," she said.

Asher adds that a major reason for the improvements has little to do with reforms, and more to do with the fact that an improving job market means fewer people are going to college.

TICAS also found that for the class of 2013, unemployment for recent college graduates was 7.8 percent, or less than half the rate for young people without a college degree.

"A college education is still one of the best investments out there," Asher said.