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Articles / Applying to College / Report Reveals Where Student Loan Debt Hits Hardest

Nov. 5, 2019

Report Reveals Where Student Loan Debt Hits Hardest

Report Reveals Where Student Loan Debt Hits Hardest

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Where loan-heavy college graduates go after graduation can make a significant impact on their quality of life. I'm talking about those cities where millennials struggle to make ends meet and can't cover expenses. It's a difficult situation that college seniors need to consider before making their choices to take employment.


Many of these young people have insurmountable debt, so called "gig"-economy jobs, record-high credit card rates and no savings. FYI, the term "gig-economy job" relates to our free market system where temporary positions are common and companies contract with independent workers for short-term engagements.

I became interested in this topic when I came across a new study that identifies certain US metropolitan areas with the highest student loan balances. The study provides important clues about specific geographic regions where millennials will suffer the most financial distress when settling in after graduation.

Last week, the financial-oriented site SmartAsset issued its study, Where Student Loan Debt Hits the Hardest – 2019 Edition. The release comes at a time when student loan debt has reached $1.4 trillion, a situation that has already become an important topic with presidential candidates ahead of the 2020 election, and if/when the next recession strikes, may financially paralyze many of that generation.

In brief, SmartAsset analyzed the top 25 metro areas most impacted by the student debt crisis and profiled the top 10. Researchers used data from Experian, the Census and the IRS to develop a list where average student loan debt exceeds the median earnings of millennials.

Gainesville, Ithaca Among Top Ten

According to the study, the top ten metro areas hit hardest by the student debt crisis are as follows:

  • Gainesville, Fla.
  • Corvallis, Ore.
  • Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C.
  • Morgantown, W.V.
  • Eugene, Ore.
  • Greenville, N.C.
  • Ithaca, N.Y.
  • Santa Fe, N.M.
  • Hattiesburg, Miss.
  • Colombia, Mo.

I've heard the names of some of these areas in my work with college applicants and graduates, since some have more than a few times mentioned Durham-Chapel Hill, Morgantown, Eugene, Greenville and Ithaca. What may appear to be extremely appealing on paper as a place to begin a life's work may turn out to be just the opposite once loan debt enters the picture.

Let's take a closer look at the study's findings and rationale:

Following mortgage debt, student loan debt is the second-largest form of U.S. consumer debt, growing substantially over recent years and negatively affecting Americans' ability to save enough. According to data from Experian, student loan debt reached an all-time high of $1.4 trillion in the first quarter of 2019, an increase of 116 percent from 10 years prior. In fact, the average American has $35,359 in student loan debt.

Though student loan debt is a national problem, some places have been more affected than others, with average amounts varying metro area. In this study, SmartAsset looked at some of the metro areas most impacted by student loan debt. We considered data from Experian, the Census and the IRS in order to form our rankings ...

The study's two key findings point to realities that many, if not most, graduates fail to consider when making their job-related location decisions:

- First, student loan debt outpaces yearly earnings in some places. In four of the top 10 metro areas in our study and six of the total 100 for which we considered data in our study, average student loan debt exceeds the median earnings for residents with a bachelor's degree. The difference is the largest in Corvallis, Ore., where average student debt is $6,325 more than the median earnings for individuals older than the age of 25 who have a bachelor's degree.

- Second, university towns are disproportionately affected. All of the top six metro areas hit hardest by student debt are college towns: Gainesville, Florida; Corvallis, Oregon; Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina; Morgantown, West Virginia; Eugene, Oregon and Greenville, North Carolina. The Durham-Chapel Hill metro area, home to both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Duke University, ranks third in the study and has the highest average student loan debt of any metro area, at $47,955, according to Experian findings.

These Statistics Provide Insight

Those are sobering statistics. It's not hard to imagine what life might be like for recent, or even somewhat longer-term, college graduates living in those areas. Once again, these are the consequences of debt for those who have not worked long enough to accumulate some reasonable equity. It's much like living in a house of credit cards, so to speak.

The study offers profiles of the Top 10 cities. Here's a sample of three:

Gainesville, Fla.: Part of northern Florida and home to the University of Florida, Gainesville is the top place impacted by student loan debt, according to the five metrics we considered. Average student loan debt in Gainesville, at $44,508, is the fifth-highest across all 100 metro areas. The median annual earnings for residents with bachelor's degrees was only $41,782 in 2017, the 16th-lowest.

Eugene, Ore.: In 2017, median earnings for bachelor's degree holders in Eugene, Oregon were $37,386, the fifth-lowest amount for this metric of any metro area we considered. Though average student loan debt in Eugene does not exceed the median annual earnings for bachelor's degree holders, it comes close. Specifically, Experian reports that as of the end of the first quarter in 2019, average student loan debt for residents in Eugene was $36,916, which is 98.74% of median earnings.

Greenville, N.C.: Greenville, North Carolina performs poorly in all five metrics we considered. Average student loan debt for residents was $38,694 in March 2019, the 38th-highest of the 100 areas we considered. Furthermore, median earnings for bachelor's degree holders were only $41,625 in 2017, the 15th-lowest rate.

A detailed statement of methodology follows the list of the Top 25 cities.

In case you're wondering who's borrowing all this money for college, here's a graphic that shows Average U.S. students' undergraduate student loan debt in 2016, by ethnicity. If you're a college student about to graduate, where do you appear on the graph?

I hope the above information might give you some food for thought as you prepare to begin life after college. My wish is that you'll launch that chapter with as little debt as possible.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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