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Arizona among best in nation, by being among the least -- for college debt

WASHINGTON - Students in four-year colleges in Arizona graduated with some of the lowest college debt in the nation in 2012, according to a new report.

The Project on Student Debt said Wednesday that average student debt in Arizona was $20,299 in 2012, the 47th-lowest among states. The report also said that 54 percent of Arizona graduates were in debt, 38th in the nation.

Nationally, 71 percent of those who graduated last year had student loan debt, at an average of $29,400 each.

The Arizona numbers were surprising to at least one student leader, who noted a College Board report that said in-state tuition and fees climbed an inflation-adjusted 70 percent from 2008-09 to this school year.

"Over the past several years our tuition has been increasing tremendously and it is very frustrating, as I also have a good amount of loan," said Morgan Abraham, president of the Associated Students of the University of Arizona.

Abraham said many of the students he represents are struggling with tuition and they have accumulated more debt.

The report - which was produced by the Institute for College Access and Success - said rising college debt has been the case across the nation. Institute President Lauren Asher said student debt increased an average of 6 percent a year nationally from 2008 to 2012.

"The report tells a lot," as the cost of attending college is growing faster than family income, said Asher.

The main reason for the relatively low debt in Arizona is the fact that most students in the state go to public schools, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com.

"Usually the tuition in public school is lower than private school," he said.

Kantrowitz noted that students in Pennsylvania, which has a relatively high number of private schools, graduated with an average debt of $31,675 and more of them were in debt, with 70 percent of Pennsylvania grads paying off loans.

Pennsylvania trailed only Delaware and New Hampshire in the amount of graduates' debt, with all three states averaging more that $31,500.

At the other end of the scale, only California and New Mexico had lower average debt than Arizona, at $20,269 and $17,994, respectively.

While Arizona did well, Kantrowitz noted the difference between states was not that significant in terms of dollars.

"You can have the state ranking move up and down in different years," he said, with the average difference among the more-affordable states at only several hundred dollars.

Kantrowitz said he expected the national average debt to be higher, and pointed out that only a little more than half of universities responded to the survey.

But Asher said the schools that responded to the survey represented more than 80 percent of graduating students in the country.

While only four colleges in Arizona responded - Prescott College, Northern Arizona University, the University of Arizona and Arizona State University - Asher said they accounted for 97 percent of the state's graduates in 2012.

Kantrowitz attributed the rising student debt "in part due to the failure of government to support" schools, with most of the problem stemming from cuts to state and federal education funding. Student loans have become the only way for most students to offset increasing tuition, he said.

Katie Paquet, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Board of Regents, acknowledged that tuition has risen but said the board is "committed to providing affordable access to higher education."

"Student debt at our three state universities remains below the national average, despite fluctuations in tuition as a result of significant state budget cuts," said Paquet.

Even though Arizona student debt is low now, Kantrowitz predicted that it will catch up with the rest of the nation as a result of those state funding cuts to higher education.

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