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The 10 cities hit the hardest by student debt

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Student loans have the potential to change lives for the better.

Student loans can help people finance a college degree, which remains a key part of accessing high-paying jobs and preparing for the economy of tomorrow. Employment data shows earning a college degree from a reputable institution in a high-paying field continues to be one of the most concrete steps workers can take toward financial and professional stability.

Taking on student debt "can be an investment in your future, and it can be something that can help you to advance in your career," AJ Smith, vice president of financial education at SmartAsset tells CNBC Make It. "Having some student loan debt is not necessarily a terrible thing."

But in cities with weak wages and high debt totals, student loans can have a negative impact on the lives of workers and on local economies.

SmartAsset recently analyzed data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, Experian and the IRS across 100 metro areas to determine which cities are the most negatively impacted by student debt. SmartAsset weighed several local variables, including the average amount of student loan debt, median earnings for bachelor's degree holders and the unemployment rate for bachelor's degree holders.

They found that while student loan debt is a national problem, specific cities are getting hit the hardest.

Here are the 10 cities most impacted by student debt, according to SmartAsset.

Downtown Columbia, Missouri
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10. Columbia, Missouri

Average student loan debt: $40,146
Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders: $42,047
Overall impact score: 85.10

9. Hattiesburg, Mississippi

Average student loan debt: $37,866
Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders: $35,660
Overall impact score: 85.67

8. Santa Fe, New Mexico

Average student loan debt: $40,447
Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders: $37,055
Overall impact score: 87.97

6. Ithaca, New York (tie)

Average student loan debt: $39,192
Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders: $39,674
Overall impact score: 88.25

6. Greenville, North Carolina (tie)

Average student loan debt: $38,694
Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders: $41,625
Overall impact score: 88.25

Eugene, Oregon
Brad Sloan | Getty Images

5. Eugene, Oregon

Average student loan debt: $36,916
Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders: $37,386
Overall impact score: 89.68

4. Morgantown, West Virginia

Average student loan debt: $40,430
Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders: $41,895
Overall impact score: 93.98

3. Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina

Average student loan debt: $47,955
Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders: $50,523
Overall impact score: 94.56

2. Corvallis, Oregon

Average student loan debt: $46,164
Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders: $39,839
Overall impact score: 99.14

1. Gainesville, Florida

Average student loan debt: $44,508
Median earnings for bachelor's degree holders: $41,782
Overall impact score: 100.00

Gainesville, Florida
Michael Warren | Getty Images

Gainesville, Florida, was named the No. 1 city most impacted by student debt. The city is home to the University of Florida, which enrolls some 52,218 students, a factor which likely impacted the city's top spot on SmartAsset's ranking.

"University towns appear to be disproportionately affected by student debt," Smith explains. "All of the top six metro areas hit hardest by student debt are college towns."

While it may be unsurprising that college towns with a high number of current students and recent graduates have above average levels of student debt and earn below average wages, Smith stresses that student debt impacts communities beyond just college capuses.

"This is the second largest form of U.S. consumer debt," she says. "When you have to budget in paying off student loan debt, something generally has to give, whether that is the amount of spending you're doing on a regular basis — going out and supporting community businesses, going out to dinner, going out to lunch, buying goods — and it also impacts people's personal goals like retirement or buying a home."

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