California’s undergraduates have third lowest average debt in nation, report shows

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California undergraduate students in 2010-11 graduated with the third-lowest level of average debt in the country, according a report released Thursday.

The report by the Institute for College Access and Success surveyed 70 four-year universities in the state and found that 51 percent of California graduates in 2011 left their undergraduate institutions with an average of $18,879 in debt. Only Hawaii and Utah had lower debt averages.

Debbie Cochrane, the institute’s research director, said California has a low debt level because of its large public higher education system and the existence of the state’s Cal Grant program, which offers aid to California resident students with financial need. Approximately 6,300 UC Berkeley students currently receive Cal Grants, according to the campus office of financial aid.
The study comes at a time when the immediate financial stability of California’s public higher education systems hinges on voters passing Proposition 30 in November.

If passed, the proposition, supported by Gov. Jerry Brown, would prevent a series of budget cuts to the state’s higher education institutions and a possible 20 percent tuition increase for UC students in January. This measure follows a 21 percent decrease in state allocations to the UC, CSU and California Community Colleges systems since the 2007-08 academic year, which has resulted in tuition increases.

Because student tuition at the university has increased 84 percent since the 2007-08 academic year, more UC students are relying on loans to finance their educations. The institute’s report uses data for students who graduated in 2011, which means that the data considered did not reflect borrowing rates for students affected by the university’s most recent tuition increase.

“Quickly rising tuition combined with increasing pressure on the financial aid program means that something significant may have to change here,” Cochrane said. “Having the types of resources that Proposition 30 promises for higher education will help to stop the pressure for getting worse, but it is not going to ameliorate all of the challenges that the state is facing.”

UC spokesperson Dianne Klein said that while the university is in a “tough state,” it still remains one of the most affordable in the nation, partly due to efforts to increase private donations to fund core expenses.

“Yes, it’s more expensive due to state cutbacks,” Klein said. “But we do believe that given these diminishing state resources, to come up with revenue through the private sector and others means that we still certainly are one hell of a bargain.”

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