CONWAY — Coastal Carolina University senior Daniel Mableton knows that while graduation will end his college career, he will only be beginning to pay back debt he’s incurred to pay for his education.
“I’m worried about paying it back,” said Mableton, a graphic design major from Winnsboro. “When I get older, I also want to be able to start a family and buy a house.”
Mableton said he transferred to CCU in 2012 from Midlands Technical College and needs to calculate exactly how much he will owe, but coming from a single-parent household, he said he knows he will be paying for his own education.
CCU graduates in 2012 had the highest average debt load of any public university in South Carolina, and CCU has one of the nation’s highest average debt rates for a public school, 72 percent, with 2012 graduates carrying $34,040 in debt, on average, according to federal data compiled for the Institute for College Access & Success, a California-based research group.
That’s $4,600 more debt than the national average and nearly $7,000 more than the state average, but the university has crafted a new three-year degree program that aims to help some students recoup $5,000 upon graduation, which can jumpstart their path to repayment.
“[The high amount of debt for graduates] concerns us, but we believe our numbers tend to run high because our out-of-state population approaches half of our student body,” said Eddie Dyer, CCU executive vice president and chief operating officer. “Our in-state tuition is at about the median for the state’s 10 comprehensive public universities.”
The average debt for S.C. college graduates was $27,416 in 2012, almost $2,000 less than the national average. Still, some of the other tuition-debt data is sobering for S.C. students seeking diplomas:
• Since 2008, the college debt of S.C. graduates has grown at a faster pace than the national average. Part of the reason? South Carolina has the most expensive average tuition for public colleges in the Southeast and ranked among the 10 costliest in the nation, according to a survey of 2011-12 data by the U.S. Department of Education.
• Debt at private four-year S.C. schools was just $1,600 higher than at public colleges. But a larger chunk of private school graduates, 66 percent, left with debt than public college students, 53 percent, the institute found.
• The typical Palmetto State grad carried $6,300 more in debt after getting a diploma last year than their 2008 counterparts. Debt is growing faster than the rate of inflation because tuition has increased at a faster pace than the average cost of all goods and services.
• More than half of S.C. graduates — 55 percent — had debt after getting their diploma. But that’s below the national average of 71 percent.
• Loan default rates grew at most S.C. schools between 2010 and 2011, according to an analysis of federal data Institute for College Access & Success.
CCU’s in-state tuition is $4,840 per semester for full-time students, which the university has kept flat for two years, while full-time, out-of-state students pay $11,315 per semester. CCU’s expenses have increased, however, and the university plans to ask the state for $3 million to keep in-state tuition flat again next year, but out-of-state tuition will continue to increase.
CCU plans to tackle the debt problem with a new three-year degree program that administrators say would be a first in the state.
Students must enter as first-time freshmen and earn all of their credits at CCU, except for high school credits that transfer to the university, such as advanced placement courses. Program coursework will be put online so that students can go home for the summer and work, while also taking classes at in-state rates, Dyer said, and they will take home a rebate of $5,000 when they graduate.
“We’ll hand them a check along with a diploma,” Dyer said.
The three-year program will begin in the fall for business administration majors, but Dyer said the program will be available for students in education, science and humanities for fall 2015.
Dyer said the university finishes at the top of the list every year for efficiency of operations among the state’s comprehensive universities, and while it would be great if out-of-state tuition could flatten, CCU’s loyalty is to its in-state students.
“We think our students realize this is a serious financial undertaking they need to be aware of, and it may cause them to delay gratification, like getting a new home,” Dyer said. “We’ve always talked about education as an investment, and now we’re starting to see commentators talk about return on investment, but they’re only comparing salaries to the cost of education. There are values in a liberal arts education that can’t be measured.”
Ben Downs, a senior majoring in sports management, said he’s been thinking about how much debt he’s incurred since around his sophomore year and estimates he will owe about $25,000 after he graduates, although that number will increase if he goes on to graduate school.
“If I get my master’s, I could teach at a college or get a sports administration job,” said Downs, who said a higher degree could get him a better-paying job. “That’s the hope.”
Schools, lawmakers take action
Other S.C. schools say they work to educate students about debt while they are on campus. Talk about tuition loans goes along with information about credit cards at student orientations.
USC has opened a student financial literacy office, and the school also is working with students to keep up their grades so they can retain their state lottery scholarships, which lower their tuition bills.
And lawmakers are jumping in. The rising cost of college tuition is expected to be a top issue in next year’s General Assembly session.
State Rep. Chip Limehouse introduced a bill this month that calls for a pilot program that would allow students not to pay tuition until they get their diploma. After graduating, they would make payments for a period, like paying off a home mortgage.
“We’re telling our kids in South Carolina that you must go to college, and then they come out with a huge debt,” the Charleston Republican said. “There is not a job waiting for everybody. … The current model is not working.”
Debt among other S.C. college graduates varies.
Last year, USC graduates carried $25,022 in debt. That was $6,000 less than the average Clemson University and Citadel graduate, but $2,000 to $3,000 more than typical diploma holders at the College of Charleston and Winthrop University.
Debt at private schools ranged from $22,118 at Wofford College in Spartanburg to nearly $33,000 at Coker College in Hartsville. Nine out of 10 students at Coker and Limestone College in Gaffney graduated with debt.
Not all schools, including S.C. State University and USC-Beaufort, reported their graduates’ debt in the survey.
An education in money
For the most part, the percentage of S.C. college students graduating with debt remained about the same or has dropped slightly at most colleges in state, according to the Institute for College Access & Success report.
Still, that percentage has grown at some schools, including CCU and The Citadel.
At USC, South Carolina’s public flagship university, administrators say they have worked to better educate students about the price of life, including tuition debt, after they leave the Columbia campus.
Keeping state scholarships, which can pay up to $10,000 a year toward tuition costs, also helps lower post-graduate debt, USC counsels.
Next semester, the university will start to reach out to freshmen whose grades have fallen at or near the cut-offs to keep their state lottery scholarships.
Those students will get offers of tutoring help or advice about going to summer classes.
USC also tries to drive home the message that students should graduate in four years, while they still are eligible for lottery scholarships, admissions executive director Scott Verzyl said.
Debt grows when students take an extra year to graduate without that financial support.
“The challenge is that there’s a certain amount of exploration that goes on in college. People want to change majors,” Verzyl said.
“You may have to spend an extra semester. We’re trying to find ways to improve our advising of students to shorten that time … so they don’t have to resort to loans.”
The State’s Andrew Shain contributed to this story.
Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401 or follow her at Twitter.com/TSN_VickiGrooms.