By LAURA GURFEIN
WASHINGTON (Dec. 10, 2009) - While some college students would do anything to avoid going into debt for their education, Amanda Merson decided to take the plunge.
"Paying off that debt hopefully won't put me in a cardboard box, but I know it will be worth it in the long run," said the 21-year-old Loyola University Maryland senior, joking about having to live on the streets.
Despite financial aid, scholarships, a Pell Grant, becoming a resident assistant to offset housing costs and receiving assistance from her parents and grandparents, Merson estimated that she has accumulated $17,000 in federal loan debt to pay for her private school education so far.
Merson's situation is similar to most Maryland students, according to a new study ranking states on student debt.
Students at Maryland's four-year public and not-for-profit private institutions faced an average debt of $18,647 upon graduation in 2008, ranking 37th in the nation, according to a report released last week by the Project on Student Debt.
The report comes at a crucial time for Maryland's public universities, as the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents debates maintaining the in-state tuition freeze for an unprecedented fifth straight year, pending the state's fiscal year 2011 budget.
However, with budget cuts still possible for the current fiscal year, a tuition hike is not out of the question, according to the board.
"The USM's ability to maintain the tuition freeze is an issue that the board will be evaluating," system Chancellor William E. Kirwan said in November.
Neighboring District of Columbia reported the highest average student debt upon graduation at $29,793. However, nearly all undergraduate institutions in the district are private and have high tuition rates.
Utah reported the lowest debt at $13,041, bettering second-ranked Hawaii by more than $2,000.
The report noted that students in northeastern states faced the highest amount of debt, a fact it attributed to the abundance of private institutions in the region. Students in western states, where most attend public universities, accumulated the lowest debt upon graduation.
The University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, was highlighted in the report's list of lowest-debt schools. Graduating students there averaged only $8,500 in debt in 2008, but 89 percent, a relatively high proportion of graduates, faced some debt upon graduation.
An estimated 44 percent of students at the University of Maryland, College Park, faced the highest debt for a public university in the state at an average of $20,091 upon graduation in 2008, when tuition and fees for residents were set at $7,969 for that school year.
The only other Maryland public university with debt rates higher than the state average upon graduation in 2008 was the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which averaged $20,002 and had nearly 50 percent of students facing debt.
Students at these universities are feeling the financial pressure.
"I've been fighting for financial aid since I first got to college and have been stressed come the end of each semester in regards to how I'm going to finish paying it off," said Heather Kopf, a student government member at the Baltimore County campus, said in an e-mail. "I wish I had looked into my options ahead of time of payment plans and different loans with lower interest rates" when applying for college.
As expected, students at most of Maryland's private colleges by graduation had accumulated debt well beyond the state average. Students at Mount St. Mary's University in Emmitsburg graduated in 2008 with $27,230 in debt, while students at Merson's Loyola University Maryland accumulated $26,340 in debt. About 77 percent of students at Mount St. Mary's had debt at graduation while only 71 percent owed money at Loyola.
To help students understand their loan obligations and payment options, Loyola requires "exit counseling" to all students receiving financial aid through the university, according to vice president and director of financial aid Mark Lindenmeyer.
The only private institution whose students had lower debt than the state average was Goucher College in Baltimore at $16,729 and about 50 percent of students with some debt. Goucher's tuition for the 2007-2008 school year was $31,082.
Merson, who described herself as being from "a lower socioeconomic background," ultimately chose Loyola over Towson, a public university with much lower tuition, because of its intimacy and opportunities.
"I chose a school with a higher price tag, but I knew that I would get so much more out of it rather than going to a school where I would just be a number," Merson said.
The full report is available at http://www.projectonstudentdebt.org/.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.