Ridley Hopper-Brooks, a University of New Mexico pre-med student, is in her second semester as a college student and has already taken out almost $11,000 in federal loans.
Hopper-Brooks said she gets $4,000 from the state lottery scholarship and federal aid grants, but the money doesn’t cover extra expenses, like classroom fees associated with pre-med courses and on-campus living costs.
“I still have to get loans because it’s not enough,” she said.
Hopper-Brooks is part of a growing number of UNM students who rely on student loans to pay for their education and accompanying costs.
But New Mexico students acquire much less debt than students in the rest of the country. The state ranks 48th in the nation for average student debt, according to the Project on Student Debt, an initiative of the nonprofit Institute for College and Success.
Nationally, about 66 percent of students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2010 had accrued student loan debt, data show. The average debt amassed per student is $25,000, a 5 percent increase over the year before. In total, the amount of student borrowing surpassed $100 billion for the first time in 2010, according to the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys.
In New Mexico, far fewer students borrowed.
Only 46 percent of UNM students had loan debt upon graduation in 2010, and the average amount per student was $17,375.
The cost of attendance at UNM this year was between $13,000 and $14,000 for students who live at home, and between $18,000 and $19,600 for students who live on campus.
About 34 percent of New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology grads had loans, averaging almost $16,000 per student. Ranking highest of the three research universities is New Mexico State, where 60 percent of 2010 graduates had relied on student loans. NMSU students took out $16,600 on average by the time they graduated.
At UNM, administrators have noticed a spike in the amount of money students borrow for school.
Loan debt per student went from about $15,000 in 2009 to more than $17,000 the next year, vice president for enrollment management Terry Babbitt said.
“It’s something that we want to keep our eye on,” Babbitt said.
One factor in the increase is the federal government’s increased lending limits over the past few years, he said. For example, limits for federal loans have more than doubled in the past five years.
What’s more, the sour economy and unemployment have led to more students enrolling in school and supporting themselves through loans, Babbitt said. Jobs are scarce for students looking to support themselves through college.
“So if you’re not working, then you have to borrow more money,” Babbitt said.
Keeping track of student debt and helping students deal with it is an administration priority, he said.
“We’re very cognizant of it and aware, and just because we are below the national average, we’re still concerned about it,” he said. The school requires students who get loans to go through financial counseling when the loan is granted and again when they graduate.
For Hopper-Brooks, having to take out loans to cover the extra costs of being a student can be frustrating.
“I guess everybody I know here worked really hard — everyone works really hard — to get to college, and they pay a huge price,” she said.
Hopper-Brooks added that many of her friends who didn’t get the lottery scholarship wound up skipping out on college because they couldn’t pay for it.
She said although she’s confident her career path will lead to eventual financial security, the costs of going to college could get too high.
“If anything was going to make me leave school, it would be how much it costs,” she said.
The lottery scholarship also has not sufficed for third-year musical theory and composition student Sebastian Holguin.
Holguin said he’s had to take out student loans for all six semesters he’s been at UNM for things like books and class fees. Music students often have to pay for piano accompanists, a cost not included in tuition.
When he’s done with school, that will easily translate to up to $40,000 in debt, he said.
Still, Babbitt said UNM continues to be one of the most affordable universities. That, combined with federal grant aid and the lottery scholarship, has helped New Mexico students stay out of excessive debt, he said.
“The biggest reason is that we’re a really good value. Schools in New Mexico, speaking primarily for UNM, our tuition and cost of attendance is very affordable. It allows our students to be judicious borrowers. If you combine those things, it keeps indebtedness (under the national average),” he said.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal