And the Number-One State for Student Debt Is ...

Hint: It's tiny, cold, and has the highest public-college tuition in the country. 

Student debt is a national problem that comes in 50 local flavors (51, if you count D.C.). The amount and frequency with which undergraduates borrow varies vastly from state to state, some of which are far better at providing an affordable education than others. 

So, where do students have it worst? As a new report from the Project on Student Debt reminds us, that distinction still goes to New Hampshire, which in the last few years has become a poster child of sorts for out-of-control college costs. At New Hampshire's four-year public colleges, the project team finds, 80 percent of the class of 2012 borrowed for school, more than in any other state. Students graduated $33,578 in debt on average, second only to Delaware, where undergrads borrowed far less often. 

In California, by comparison, just over half of public college students borrowed, with an average balance of $17,994 come commencement. 

Here are two quick visual ways to see vast geographical variations in student borrowing. In dark green states below (scroll over for numbers), public college undergrads borrow more frequently (notice New Hampshire in that handsome shade of seaweed). In lighter green states, they borrow less often. (North Dakota, in white, sadly lacked data). 

Percent of Four-Year Public College Graduates 
With Student Debt, Class of 2012

And in this graph (again, scroll over the dots for data), you can see that as a rule of thumb, the states where students are more likely to borrow are also the states where they take on more debt. Note, you'll find New Hampshire sitting in the upper right hand corner.

So why is the situation in the Granite State so dire? And what can we learn from it? In short, New Hampshire is what happens when you take the public out of public education. The state provides its colleges with some of the lowest per-student funding in the country (in FY 2012, it was dead last). But the schools still spend similarly to institutions elsewhere in the U.S. As a result, New Hampshire's 4-year schools charge the country's highest in-state tuition. Students actually borrow less on average and (less often) at New Hampshire's private universities. The Project On Student Debt has only found two other states where that's the case: Pennsylvania and Maine. 

There was a time when some some universities believed that they could keep borrowing to a minimum while charging such high tuition. How? By using funds paid by wealthy students to subsidize financial aid to needier ones. But that experiment hasn't worked out too well. As shown below, in states where public colleges charge more, students generally borrow more.  

Student debt is a complicated issue. But that aspect of it is pretty simple. 

Presented by

Jordan Weissmann is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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