SC has some of the highest student debt in the country, no matter how you count it

The state legislature may increase needs-based scholarship funding by more than $11 million next fiscal year.
The state legislature may increase needs-based scholarship funding by more than $11 million next fiscal year.

Does South Carolina have the highest amount of student debt in the country, as one study says? Or is it 14th, according to a WalletHub study released Wednesday?

Those are among dozens of studies that attempt to determine how the nation’s $1.5 trillion in student-loan debt affects individual areas. Though the studies use different methods and reach slightly different results, a clear pattern emerges among them: South Carolina has some of the highest student-loan debt in the country.

“As college costs in South Carolina soar, students and families are being forced to borrow more and more to pay for higher education,” said Tim Hofferth, the chair of the Commission on Higher Education. “Until we reverse this trend, our fear is that more and more students will be priced out of the invaluable opportunity to achieve their dreams and move our state forward.”

A few examples:

  • A WalletHub study released Aug. 1 — and the most recent of its type — ranks South Carolina as the state with the 14th-highest amount of student-loan debt. The study evaluated each state based on 11 factors, including: average student debt, debt as a share of income, default rates, share of borrowers over 50 years old and more.

  • A Zippia study from May found S.C. had the highest median student debt. Unlike the WalletHub study, this study factored in only median student debt figures from the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard.
  • A report from Simple Thrifty Living earlier this year found college costs more in South Carolina, when compared to the state median income, than any other state in the union.
  • A 2017 LendEDU study showed South Carolina had the 17th-highest college debt per borrower in the country. Rather than Department of Education data, this study used numbers from a voluntary survey of graduates from 1,161 colleges and universities.
  • A 2015 report from The Institute for College Access and Success found the average student loan debt in South Carolina increased faster than all but three states between 2004 and 2014, tying with Wisconsin for fourth place.

The median South Carolina college graduate has $26,535 in student-loan debt, according to the Zippia study.

The cost of higher education in South Carolina has increased three times faster than health care and almost six times as fast as property values, according to Commission on Higher Education data.

Tuition at colleges and universities has increased at an average, annual rate of 5.2 percent at four-year colleges in the past 10 years in South Carolina, according to 2017 data from the Commission on Higher Education.

Tuition has increased fastest at the University of South Carolina Beaufort, 6.8 percent on average per year, followed by The Citadel with an average 6.3 percent annual increase, according to the data.

USC and Clemson University have been increasing tuition in the past 10 years at roughly the same rates: 4.7 on average per year and 4.9, respectively, commission data show. Both schools increased tuition for the 2018-2019 school year.

The relative cost of college increases even more when compared to how much the median S.C. family makes. From 1997 to 2015, the median family’s inflation-adjusted income decreased 8.2 percent, according to Commission on Higher Education data.

The commission, S.C.’s higher education watchdog body, has been critical of rising tuition and advocated for colleges to cut costs. University officials say tuition is higher because the state has failed to deliver on its promise to fully fund higher education.

“The only way to help us freeze tuition or slow tuition growth is through increased funding to higher education,” USC spokesman Wes Hickman said when previously asked about tuition increases.

While many universities say tuition increases are inevitable without more state support, Benedict College cut its tuition 26 percent by cutting costs, capping enrollment and increasing admissions requirements.

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