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Over the past decade, students have taken on an increasing amount of debt to pay for college. While borrowing student loans may be inevitable for many, costs and financial aid options vary widely across institutions, and so too can the average level of student debt.
Experts advise students to keep borrowing to a minimum, turning to loans only after seeking out other forms of financial aid like grants and scholarships, which do not have to be repaid. Those who overborrow student loans may struggle to repay their debt: 17% of adults who took on education debt and still owed money in 2019 were behind on their payments, according to the Federal Reserve.
Still, the majority of college graduates rely on student loans to pay for college. In an annual U.S. News survey, 1,008 ranked colleges reported the average student loan debt for graduates in the class of 2019. Looking across these schools, the average student loan debt was $30,037 and about 65% of graduates borrowed, on average. This data pertains to first-year students who borrowed federal and private loans to pay for college, excluding parent loans, and graduated with a bachelor's degree.
To limit student loan debt, prospective students can consider attending a college where students typically rely on smaller loans. At the 10 colleges where graduates had the least debt in 2019, the average debt burden of those who borrowed to pay for school was $5,473. An average of about 34% of class of 2019 graduates at these schools borrowed loans.
On the other end of the spectrum, at the colleges where 2019 graduates borrowed the most, their average student loan debt was $52,327.
Similar to 2018, graduates of Pensacola State College in Florida in 2019 borrowed the least amount, relying on $1,537 of debt on average. Just 4% of graduates from this school borrowed loans to pay for college.
The 10 schools where graduates borrowed the least are located throughout the country and are primarily Regional Universities, institutions that offer bachelor's degrees, some master's programs and limited doctoral degrees, or Regional Colleges, schools that focus on undergraduate education but award fewer than half of their degrees in liberal arts fields. Just one National Liberal Arts College makes the list; this type of school emphasizes undergraduate education and awards half or more of its degrees in liberal arts fields.
Below is a list of the 10 colleges where 2019 graduates who borrowed loans to pay for school had the lowest average debt. Unranked schools, which did not meet certain criteria required by U.S. News to be numerically ranked, were not considered for this report.
Average debt load, class of 2019
Percentage of graduating students who borrowed
U.S. News rank and category
30, Regional Colleges (South)
14, Regional Colleges (West)
58 (tie), Regional Universities (West)
38, Regional Colleges (North)
33, National Liberal Arts Colleges
26 (tie), Regional Universities (West)
29 (tie), Regional Universities (West)
56 (tie), Regional Universities (North)
16 (tie), Regional Universities (West)
70-91, Regional Colleges (South)
Don't see your school in the top 10? Access the U.S. News College Compass to find student debt information, complete rankings and much more. Sign up for the U.S. News Extra Help: College Admissions free email newsletter to receive expert advice twice a month.
U.S. News surveyed more than 1,800 colleges and universities for our 2020 survey of undergraduate programs. Schools self-reported myriad data regarding their academic programs and the makeup of their student body, among other areas, making U.S. News' data the most accurate and detailed collection of college facts and figures of its kind. While U.S. News uses much of this survey data to rank schools for our annual Best Colleges rankings, the data can also be useful when examined on a smaller scale. U.S. News will now produce lists of data, separate from the overall rankings, meant to provide students and parents a means to find which schools excel, or have room to grow, in specific areas that are important to them. While the data comes from the schools themselves, these lists are not related to, and have no influence over, U.S. News' rankings of Best Colleges, Best Graduate Schools or Best Online Programs. The student loan data above is correct as of Feb. 23, 2021.
Emma Kerr is the paying for college reporter at U.S. News & World Report. Prior to joining U.S. News, she covered education in Maryland for the Frederick News-Post and made stops at the Chronicle of Higher Education and the Daily Beast, among others. She graduated from the University of Michigan--Ann Arbor, where she studied English and international studies and began her career as a news reporter at its student newspaper, The Michigan Daily. You can connect with her on Twitter at @EmmaRKerr.