Danny Lloyd just finished his first semester at the University of South Carolina, but the Columbia native already knows he will get more than a mechanical engineering degree when he graduates.
Lloyd expects to have roughly $20,000 in tuition debt — a prospect that provides him a strong incentive to find work in the state’s growing aerospace industry: “It’s going to weigh over my head so I better get a good job so I can pay this back.”
The average debt for S.C. college graduates was $27,416 in 2012, according to an recent analysis of federal data compiled for the Institute for College Access & Success, a California-based research group.
That is almost $2,000 less than the national average. Still, some of the other tuition-debt data is sobering for S.C. students seeking diplomas.
• Since 2008, the college debt of S.C. graduates has grown at a faster pace than the national average. Part of the reason? South Carolina has the most expensive average tuition for public colleges in the Southeast and ranked among the 10 costliest in the nation, according to a survey of 2011-12 data by the U.S. Department of Education.
• Debt at private four-year S.C. schools was just $1,600 higher than at public colleges. But a larger chunk of private school graduates, 66 percent, left with debt than public college students, 53 percent, the institute found.
• The typical Palmetto State grad carried $6,300 more in debt after getting a diploma last year than their 2008 counterparts. Debt is growing faster than the rate of inflation because tuition has increased at a faster pace than the average cost of all goods and services.
• More than half of S.C. graduates — 55 percent — had debt after getting their diploma. But that’s below the national average of 71 percent.
• Loan default rates grew at most S.C. schools between 2010 and 2011, according to an analysis of federal data Institute for College Access & Success.
S.C. schools say they work to educate students about debt while they are on campus. Talk about tuition loans goes along with information about credit cards at student orientations.
USC has opened a student financial literacy office, and the school also is working with students to keep up their grades so they can retain their state lottery scholarships, which lower their tuition bills.
Coastal Carolina University, which has one of the nation’s highest average debt rates, plans to ease debt loads by rewarding graduates who complete their degrees in three years with a check.
And lawmakers are jumping in. The rising cost of college tuition is expected to be a top issue in next year’s General Assembly session.
State Rep. Chip Limehouse introduced a bill this month that calls for a pilot program that would allow students not to pay tuition until they get their diploma. After graduating, they would make payments for a period, like paying off a home mortgage.
“We’re telling our kids in South Carolina that you must go to college, and then they come out with a huge debt,” the Charleston Republican said. “There is not a job waiting for everybody. … The current model is not working.”
A new reward
Debt among S.C. college graduates varies.
Last year, USC graduates carried $25,022 in debt. That was $6,000 less than the average Clemson University and Citadel graduate, but $2,000 to $3,000 more than typical diploma holders at the College of Charleston and Winthrop University.
Debt at private schools ranged from $22,118 at Wofford College in Spartanburg to nearly $33,000 at Coker College in Hartsville. Nine out of 10 students at Coker and Limestone College in Gaffney graduated with debt.
Not all schools, including S.C. State University and USC-Beaufort, reported their graduates’ debt in the survey.
Coastal Carolina’s 2012 graduates carried one of the nation’s heaviest debt loads for a public school — $34,040 a student, on average.
Graduates of the Conway school held $4,600 more debt than the national average and nearly $7,000 more than the state average.
Administrators say that high average debt results from the school having the highest percentage of out-of-state students among S.C. public schools. Almost half of Coastal students come from outside South Carolina, and many pay more than twice the amount that in-state students pay in tuition.
Coastal plans to tackle the debt problem with a new program that administrators say would be a first in the state.
Coastal students who complete certain majors over three academic years and two summers would get a $5,000 check at graduation, chief operating officer Eddie Dyer said. The Conway university will begin the three-year degree program with its business administration major next fall, he said.
Coastal also has plans to offer more online courses over the summer. Online courses are charged at in-state rates, which lowers the costs for non-South Carolinians.
“They can live at home and work if they need to,” said Greg Thornburg, Coastal’s vice president for enrollment services.
An education in money
For the most part, the percentage of S.C. college students graduating with debt remained about the same or has dropped slightly at most colleges in state, according to the Institute for College Access & Success report.
Still, that percentage has grown at some schools, including Coastal and the Citadel.
At USC, South Carolina’s public flagship university, administrators say they have worked to better educate students about the price of life, including tuition debt, after they leave the Columbia campus.
Keeping state scholarships, which can pay up to $10,000 a year toward tuition costs, also helps lower post-graduate debt, USC counsels.
Next semester, the university will start to reach out to freshmen whose grades have fallen at or near the cut-offs to keep their state lottery scholarships.
Those students will get offers of tutoring help or advice about going to summer classes.
USC also tries to drive home the message that students should graduate in four years, while they still are eligible for lottery scholarships, admissions executive director Scott Verzyl said.
Debt grows when students take an extra year to graduate without that financial support.
“The challenge is that there’s a certain amount of exploration that goes on in college. People want to change majors,” Verzyl said.
“You may have to spend an extra semester. We’re trying to find ways to improve our advising of students to shorten that time … so they don’t have to resort to loans.”
Lloyd, the USC freshman engineering major, knows he will have college debt when he graduates and it will be his responsibility to repay.
His mother already has said she will make him pay back his college loan.
“I’m up to it,” he said.