While some schools leave graduates shouldering an unbearable mountain of debt, others work with students to make sure they're not taking on more than they'll be able to pay off. U.S. News & World Report assessed more than 1,800 U.S.-based colleges and universities to compile a list of the schools whose class of 2016 graduated with the lightest debt loads. U.S. News looked at the loans that students took from their colleges, from private financial institutions and from the government.
A wide range of schools made the list including large public universities, small private liberal arts colleges and even a public liberal arts college. Read on to see the list of the 10 colleges where borrowers have the lowest amounts of debt:
Percent of graduates with debt: 85 percent
Average amount of debt: $16,986
Percent of graduates with debt: 23 percent
Average amount of debt: $16,702
Percent of graduates with debt: 35 percent
Average amount of debt: $16,577
Percent of graduates with debt: 83 percent
Average amount of debt: $15,559
Percent of graduates with debt: 43 percent
Average amount of debt: $15,496
Percent of graduates with debt: 26 percent
Average amount of debt: $15,158
Percent of graduates with debt: 14 percent
Average amount of debt: $13,625
Percent of graduates with debt: 48 percent
Average amount of debt: $13,415
Percent of graduates with debt: 18 percent
Average amount of debt: $8,908
Percent of graduates with debt: 65 percent
Average amount of debt: $7,062
The school where student loan borrowers had the lowest average amount of debt was Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, where 65 percent of students take out student loans to finance their degree. Of those borrowers, Berea students graduated with an average $7,062 of debt, far less than the average student borrower. The average American in their 20s with student loan debt owes $22,135 on average.
The reason Berea tops the list is simple — it does not charge tuition. Founded in 1855 as the first interracial and coeducational college in the South, Berea only admits academically promising students with limited economic resources. The only major expense that students are responsible for is room and board.
Next on the list is Princeton University. In stark contrast to Berea however, the cost of attending Princeton University is $47,140, and only 18 percent of students take on any kind of debt. This low percentage of borrowers reflects two likely phenomena.
Princeton meets full demonstrated student financial need — meaning that the majority of aid is given through grants and work-study programs — and the university has shown a commitment to minimizing the number of students who have to take on debt in the first place. Given that Princeton has an endowment worth $22.8 billion and only enrolls 8,181 students, they are financially able to follow through on this commitment.
A second likely factor is that Princeton disproportionately accepts students from wealthy backgrounds. Stanford professor Raj Chetty found that the median family income of a Princeton student is $186,100, and 72 percent of students come from families in the top 20 percent of wealth. By accepting fewer students who need assistance, Princeton is equipped to support the small number of students who do.
The only school on the list where students were more likely to take out loans than the average American college student was Thomas Aquinas College. At Thomas Aquinas, 85 percent of students graduate with an average $16,986 in debt. But by capping the amount students borrow and keeping students on track to graduate in four years, Thomas Aquinas is able to limit the amount of debt that graduates hold.
"We don't want to burden students with an unusually large amount of debt after graduation," says Greg Becher, director of financial aid at Thomas Aquinas. "We want them to be productive members in their communities."
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