CHARLESTON, W.Va. - The 2011 graduates of West Virginia universities and colleges averaged a little more than $26,000 in student loan debt, according to a new study.
The data comes from the national Project on Student Debt, produced by the nonprofit Institute for College Access & Success. The report addresses the debt of students of public and private four-year institutions.
Nationally student loan debt increased 5 percent, following recent yearly trends, the report states.
West Virginia ranked 17th among states in its average student loan debt for the year. New Hampshire students graduated with the most debt - $32,440 - and graduates in Utah left with the least amount - $17,227.
The $27,003 average debt for graduates of West Virginia University was the highest figure among the nine public colleges in the state for which information was listed. However, that number is drastically lower than in previous years, according to the state Higher Education Policy Commission.
WVU's 2010 graduates left with an average $34,272 in debt, and its 2009 graduates left owing $36,895.
Kaye Widney, director of financial aid and scholarships at WVU, thinks the decline in debt load could be related to the poor economy.
"I think what we have seen at WVU is the drop in the amount of private loans that were being taken out by students," Widney said.
As the recession began in 2008, many students who would graduate in 2011 were just getting started in college. A tighter economy makes its tougher to get loans, Widney said. She thinks many student didn't qualify for the loans they could have gotten in the past.
The cost of attending WVU has risen, however. Widney thinks students are probably finding more support from their parents or scholarships to meet those costs. Some students might get more money from Mom and Dad, or perhaps it's easier for parents to obtain loans, she said.
"I've had parents remark to me that they would be able to secure a better rate outside of (federal student loan) programs," Widney said.
On-campus employment seems to be more appealing to students as well, she said.
"As the economy took a downward turn several years ago, we saw more and more students enquiring about employment opportunities," she said.
About 1,200 to 1,500 WVU students have jobs through the federal work-study program, Widney said. However, she said many others have gone to the school's student employment center in search of part-time work.
Widney said the debt average was about the same for the class of 2012. She thinks the number of out-of-state students attending WVU will make that number go up in the future. Tuition is more expensive for out-of-state students, and that is reflected in the debt levels of this year's graduates: West Virginia residents left WVU with about $21,000 in loan debt, compared to the $34,000 accumulated by out-of-state students.
Marshall University graduates saw the biggest jump in average debt levels from 2010 to 2011: the commission reported an average of $21,530 in student debt for 2010, while the national report indicated 2011 graduates left with $24,376.