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Which Schools had the Lowest Student Debt in 2012?

Loans, Student Loans

Debt probably isn’t the first thing on a student’s mind when they get into college. The excitement of getting accepted to a school often outshines the bleak prospect of being saddled with payments upon graduation—as it should. But factoring in student debt shouldn’t be overlooked. “A critical factor in low debt after graduation is sound financial planning and financial literacy for students and their families on funding their education,” Howard University communications officer Kerry-Ann Hamilton says. By taking the average student debt at a school into account, students can earn a degree at a lower cost, and have less to pay back after they don their cap and gown.

A new study released by The Institute for College Access & Success offers the names of 20 public and private colleges and universities with the some of the lowest student debt, as self reported by the schools. Most of the schools on the list enroll high proportions of low-income students. According to the study, the average student debt for the class of 2012 among students who borrowed to pay for school was $29,400, up from $26,600 in 2011.

Earlier this year, we analyzed the states with the highest and lowest student debt. This time around, we analyzed the list to find out which schools had the lowest average student debt among 2012 graduates. Did your school (or prospective school) make the list?




Public or Private

Average Student Debt in 2012

California State University, Sacramento CA Public $4,456
CUNY Bernard M Baruch College NY Public $4,972
Princeton University NJ Private $5,096
Tennessee Technological University TN Public $6,432
Henderson State University AR Public $6,747
Berea College KY Private $7,224
Fort Valley State University GA Public $8,263
Keystone College PA Private $8,675
College of the Ozarks MO Private $8,915
Hampton University VA Private $9,597
California State University, Bakersfield CA Public $10,101
Howard University DC Private $10,136
Campbellsville University KY Private $10,183
Gallaudet University DC Private $10,347
University of the Sciences PA Private $10,620
Chestnut Hill College PA Private $10,688
King College TN Private $10,892
CUNY Hunter College NY Public $11,000
Northeastern Illinois University IL Public $11,112
Columbia College MO Private $11,726


1. California State University, Sacramento – $4,456

With a relatively low in-state tuition ($6,573 for the 2011-2012 school year) and more than half of its students receiving Pell Grants, the university is able to keep student debt low. More than 20,000 students were enrolled in the fall 2011 semester, and over half of the 2012 graduating class matriculated debt free.

2. CUNY Bernard M Baruch – $4,972

Not only does this school boast a low student-debt average, it also graduates close to 80% of its students with no debt, well above the state average of 40% without debt. Guides such as the school’s How to $ave Money on Textbooks help to keep non-tuition costs down as well.

3. Princeton University – $5,096

Since 2001, this top-rated national university has eliminated student loans from its financial aid packages and replaced them with grant aid, or money that students don’t have to pay back. The highly selective school also says that it is one of only six colleges in the country that offers full-need financial aid to international students.

4. Tennessee Technological University – $6,432

Through counseling, the university is able to keep student debt well below the national average. A loan process assessor talks one on one with students and their families about loan debt whenever a student takes out loans after enrolling in the university and taking out the initial amount needed to cover tuition and costs. The school also holds an annual meeting with all student borrowers to go over their debt, says Lester McKenzie, director of financial aid for Tennessee Tech.

5. Henderson State University – $6,747

With more than 400 academic scholarships, and 99% of new students receiving some form of aid, Henderson State is able to keep student debt well below the national average.  The school also runs an outreach program to teach prospective students about all of the outlets available for receiving financial aid.

6. Berea College – $7,224

Classified as a “work college,” Berea offers all students a full-tuition scholarship in exchange for participation in its labor program where students work 10-15 hours per week either on or off campus. Berea, a liberal arts college with a fairly large endowment, is one of three highly selective colleges to make this list.

7. Fort Valley State University – $8,263

During the 2011-2012 school year, 75% of Fort Valley State students received Pell Grants to help pay for college. A new financial aid newsletter keeps students up to date on FAFSA news, important deadlines, and scholarship opportunities.

8. Keystone College – $8,675

A private liberal arts college located just north of Scranton, Penn., Keystone keeps its students’ debt low through its tuition management systems, including an interest-free tuition payment plan. The plan allows students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, to make monthly payments while enrolled at the college, instead of lump sum payments at the beginning of each semester. “We not only leverage our institutional dollars wisely but we conduct on-going financial aid literacy training with our students beginning with pre-enrollment orientation activities,” says Sarah Keating, vice president for enrollment and marketing at Keystone.

9. College of the Ozarks – $8,915

Also known as Hard Work U, the school discourages student borrowing by not participating in the federal, state, or private loan programs. Instead, students participate in its mandatory student work program and are encouraged to enroll in the Summer Work Program to pay for expenses. College of the Ozarks, a liberal arts college with a fairly large endowment, is one of three highly selective colleges to make this list.

10. Hampton University – $9,597

There are three main reasons for the low student debt at Hampton, says Yuri Milligan, director of university relations. First, for the last 36 years, the school’s policy has been to never raise tuition more than nine percent, keeping any raise in single digits. Second, every grant written by the school’s researchers is in some way geared toward receiving money for student scholarships. And lastly, the school only offers loans as a last resort.


The best way to receive financial aid and help keep your college costs low is by filling out the FAFSA. Use our FAFSA Guide to get started.


**Data collected from the Project on Student Debt by The Institute for College Access & Success.**