Debt at Graduation Among Wisconsin Colleges and Universities

Our previous work examined statewide and regional trends in student debt. In this post, we use data from the US Department of Education’s College Scorecard to see how debt varies across Wisconsin’s public, non-profit, and for-profit colleges and universities.

The Scorecard reports median federal student loan debt for borrowers completing a certificate, associate, or bachelor’s degree during the 1997-98 through 2017-18 school years. The following interactive chart helps us see how debt varies within and across each sector. For example, borrowers who graduated from Wisconsin’s public two-year colleges finish with median debts between $6,500 to $14,500. The range is more compressed among the public four-year sector with debts between $20,000 and $25,000. Non-profit institutions, which tend to offer four-year degrees, have comparable but slightly higher debts than public four-year institutions. And for-profit have the widest range of debt across these four sectors.

There are many reasons why debt varies across institutions. Their program length, tuition levels, availability of grant and scholarship aid, and student financial need can affect how many students borrow and how much debt they take on. To explore this a bit further, the next chart shows both the median debt for completers (vertical axis) and the percent of undergraduates who borrow federal loans each year (horizontal axis).

This offers useful context for understanding student debt in Wisconsin because one college may have relatively high debt levels but have relatively few students who borrow. Another may have relatively low debt levels but have many students who borrow. These two institutions may face different circumstances when it comes to borrowing and, as a result, may require different policy approaches that account for these differences. In the chart below, we can see substantial variation in the percentage of students who borrow and how much debt they take on, with anywhere between 20 and 90 percent of students borrow depending on which college they attend.

These two charts are most useful for exploring variation across individual institutions. Unfortunately, it is not statistically possible to use medians from individual colleges like those reported here to derive a statewide median debt at completion. Later this year, the U.S. Department of Education plans to release state-representative data on student financial aid, through the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS:18-AC) for 2017-18 college graduates. While the NPSAS should enable statewide debt calculations, waiting two to three years for statewide totals may be suboptimal for state policymakers and higher education leaders interested in monitoring more recent and up to date trends. In the meantime, they may turn to The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) annual reports that focuses only bachelor’s degree recipients (and both federal and non-federal debt) but that do not provide comprehensive figures for statewide borrowing.

Because of these limitations, improving Wisconsin’s state data infrastructure is necessary to allow us to more precisely understand the debt loads of Wisconsin graduates as a whole and across institutions. The UW System Accountability Dashboard reports aggregate debt levels for students within the UW System, but similar data are not publicly available for private institutions and technical colleges, making it difficult to measure overall debt for recent college graduates statewide. Accurately measuring the debt levels Wisconsin’s graduating students would require matching National Student Clearinghouse and National Students Loan Data System records. The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia collects this data for public and private non-profit institutions, which could provide a model for developing a similar resource for Wisconsin’s public and private colleges.