North Dakota Has Seen a Significant Drop in Student Loan Debt Loads

The campus of the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton. Special to The Forum

Are North Dakota students getting smarter about how they finance higher education?

It sure seems that way. The cost of attending institutions in the North Dakota University System certainly hasn’t gotten any cheaper, yet the volume of debt being carried by North Dakota students across all 11 public institutions in our state has declined.

Earlier this week I read a report in the Bismarck Tribune from Blair Emerson reporting a decline in student loan borrowing at Bismarck State College. I got curious if that trend was specific to BSC or more widespread, so I contacted NDUS Chancellor Mark Hagerott and asked for system wide data (see below).

Turns out student loan volume is down for all three tiers of the NDUS. The two research schools (UND and NDSU), the four-year schools (Dickinson, Mayville, Minot, and Valley City), as well as the two-year schools (Bismarck, Devils Lake, Bottineau, Wahpeton, and Williston) all saw significant declines:

What you’re looking at is a 12.6 percent decline for the research institutions, a 14.66 percent decline for the four-year schools, and a 26.02 percent decline for the two-year schools.

Though these are raw dollar numbers, it’s not enrollment driving the trend. As you can see from this chart, prepared by Legislative Council, full time equivalent enrollment across the NDUS (the flat green line at the bottom) has been static since 2011:

That chart tells us something else, too. State appropriations haven’t had much of an impact on debt loads either. General fund appropriations to the state schools has been on a bit of a roller coaster in recent years, yet the decline in loan volume has been steady.

If anything, government support for students has gone down. The data below shows the numbers for Pell Grant volumes, and they’ve been trending down too.

So what’s going on? In Emerson’s report, BSC Director of Financial Aid Scott Lingen says (speaking about BSC specifically) that students are getting smarter about debt. “Anytime staff in this office get a chance to visit with a student we always talk about borrowing wisely, borrowing less, apply for scholarships. Think about other ways you can pay for college without borrowing loans,” he told Emerson, saying student loan debt becoming a “national issue” is likely the impetus for changing attitudes.

Whatever is driving this trend, it’s good news for our state. While higher education is very important, students entering the workforce unnecessarily encumbered by large debt loads was a detriment not just to those students personally but to our economy in general.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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