Michael Brown: How Utah can keep its level of student debt the lowest in the nation

(Seth Wenig AP file photo) In this May 17, 2018, photo, new graduates line up before the start of the Bergen Community College commencement at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. In high school, students hear that they should earn a college degree to have a well-paying, successful career. But student debt isn’t good when your degree doesn’t lead to a job that earns enough to repay it.

Across the United States, an ever-growing student loan debt crisis has been ignored for decades, and now we find ourselves with an outstanding student loan debt balance of $1.67 trillion.

Yet, in Utah, no such crisis exists.

According to LendEDU’s fifth annual Student Loan Debt by School by State Report, Utah has the lowest average student loan debt per borrower figure in the country, $16,633. Only 32% of Utah graduates from the Class of 2019 left campus with student debt, also the best in the country.

Utah was No. 1 for both metrics in last year’s report so the success is nothing new. In fact, Utah actually decreased its debt per borrower figure by 15.75% from the Class of 2018 to the Class of 2019.

Among Utah colleges that had very low debt per borrower numbers for the Class of 2019 were Brigham Young University ($14,672) and Southern Utah University ($16,958).

So, how did Utah get to this enviable student loan debt position?

Utah took action when the rest of the country simply watched from the sidelines as unchecked colleges rose their tuition prices and created the student loan debt crisis our nation now must grapple with.

Back in 2015, when the Class of 2019 were freshmen, the Utah System of Higher Education Board of Regents established a plan to have 66% of young adults attain a postsecondary degree or certificate by 2020.

A pillar of the plan was affordability, specifically making public universities in Utah more affordable for the traditionally underserved. Fast forward to today and Utah’s average in-state tuition of $6,790 is one of the lowest in the country, while its out-of-state tuition of $20,730 also ranks among the most affordable.

The Regents revisited their original plan in 2019 and further enhanced their college affordability strategies. Now, Utah wants to hone in on pricing its public colleges as a percentage of median household income in the state. Further, the state is looking at establishing institution-specific goals around affordability and pricing.

If the Beehive State is to maintain its elite student loan debt and college affordability figures, it should not only continue with its sensible affordability plan but also implement a couple of other things.

In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the state should first have all public institutions implement a permanent virtual learning option that is priced at a far cheaper rate than the traditional college experience.

The pandemic has opened eyes to online learning and Utah should lean into this trend to not only boost enrollment but lower student debt by slashing tuition.

Second, a student loan debt cap around $50,000 should be mandated for all public higher education institutions in Utah. No college student should take on six-figures of debt to earn a bachelor’s degree when both the state and the schools continue to add to their coffers through student loans and endowment funds.

When a student hits his or her cap, the state steps in to cover the remaining college costs so the student isn’t repaying debt for 20 years and the state keeps its numbers down, which in turn will boost the local economy by freeing young adults of their financial burden.

Utah finds itself in the most enviable (and deserving) of positions when it comes to student loan debt, and that position can become even more desirable with just a couple of improvements.

Michael Brown

Michael Brown is the director of communications at LendEDU. He can be reached at brown@lendedu.com.

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