At the University of Southern California, which has a $4.6 billion endowment, low-income students graduate with slightly more debt than NYU’s graduates: $23,375. At Boston University ($1.5 billion endowment), it’s $27,000, and at Wake Forest University ($1.1 billion endowment) low-income students graduate with $29,150 in debt.
This new data on student debt is drawn from numbers that the Obama administration assembled as part of a planned effort to create grades for every college. In the face of fierce lobbying from universities, the administration backed away, but has made much of the data public on a new website called College Scorecard. ProPublica has used that material to create Debt By Degrees, an interactive database that allows you to search information for almost 7,000 schools. The data provides an unprecedented level of detail on the financial burden that the poorest college students face, showing for the first time how much federal debt poor students take on compared to their wealthier peers, and how well these students are able to repay their loans. The database also shows how much graduates earn on average after leaving school.
The implications of these numbers can be far-reaching. Studies have shown that even small debts can increase a student’s chances of dropping out, particularly for minorities and low-income students. Also, federal loans, which are typically capped at $27,000 over four years, often don’t cover the full expense of college. Many students also take on private bank loans or work jobs outside school.
“Student debt is not the same to every borrower,” said Mark Huelsman, a senior analyst at Demos, a public-policy nonprofit. “It can look a lot different to a first-generation student from a very modest economic background than to someone going to graduate school getting a law degree.”
Indeed, undergraduates take a fraction of the loans of graduate students but default at much higher rates. Debt can put low-income young adults at a disadvantage for years to come, limiting a graduate’s ability to save, get a mortgage, or get the job they aspire to. “At the end of the day, you’re talking about households that don’t have nearly as much wealth to fall back on,” said Huelsman.
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Rebecca Arthur wanted nothing more than to study photography at Tisch, NYU’s arts school. Her mother, however, made less than $25,000 a year working at a nursing home, so Arthur knew the school’s four-year price tag of over $250,000 would be a stretch. When Arthur was accepted, she was shocked—not only because she had gotten into her dream school, but also because the school only offered modest financial aid.
“The first bill was $32,000 and it was more than my mom made in a year,” she said. “Why would they accept me if they knew I couldn’t afford it?”
Arthur tried to crowdfund the remaining amount of her tuition, but it was only when her mother died a month before school started that NYU agreed to take a second look at her financial-aid package. Although the school increased her aid, she has to work four jobs and expects to graduate with more than $24,000 in loans.