Q&A: Explaining Dartmouth’s (Relatively) Low Student Debt Load

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Student debt is a growing concern across the country...but it's recent New Hampshire alumni who are carrying the heaviest loan burden on average

New Hampshire alumni lead the pack when it comes to average student debt, according to a report from the Project on Student Debt. Nationally, the average Class of 2010 student graduated with $25,250 in loans, while New Hampshire alumni carried student debt loads of  $31,048, on average.

So why does student debt matter for the state’s economy?  At the risk of over-simplifying economic theory, if recent graduates are saddled with high debt levels, there are some things they might not be able to afford to do. For example, big purchases, like cars, could be out of the question. Increasingly, all over the country, more young people are living at home after graduation. Also, as several economists have explained to us, people dealing with deep debt in general have a hard time saving money. When that happens on a large scale, the economy becomes more unstable.

And, of course, there’s the “New Hampshire Advantage.”  For years now, one of the state’s main selling points has been the fact that it’s got a large pool of highly educated workers.  But as the cost of higher education increases, and young people are forced to forgo higher education or move out of state for cheaper options, the “advantage” could disappear.

So student debt in New Hampshire is high, but there are disparities within the state. University of New Hampshire students attending the Durham campus graduated with the highest debt — an average of $32,323, Dartmouth grads only carried less than $19,000 in loans.

At the risk of mixing metaphors, what you’ll often hear is, “That’s an apples and oranges comparison.” Private and public institutions are two very different animals.

But even with that in mind, the Dartmouth figure still seems rather low.  In order to get behind relatively low student debt figure, we recently spoke with Maria Laskaris, the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Dartmouth College.

Q: Why is it that you think that the amount of debt your students are taking on is so much less than just about any other school in NH?

Dartmouth College

Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid Maria Laskaris helps StateImpact to understand why Dartmouth's student debt numbers are so low

A: Dartmouth is committed to meeting the full demonstrated need of all of its students  through our strong, need-based financial program.  Let me unpack that a little bit…Just to…to determine the family, or student, need, we start with the total cost of attendance.  And for Dartmouth this year, that’s roughly $55,000…Students fill out the [financial aid] profile, we collect tax return information, we take a look at student and family income and assets, number in college…unusual expenses.  And from that, we determine an amount that we believe a family can reasonably contribute to a Dartmouth education.  So then, there’s usually a gap for financial aid students, between the cost of attendance, and what we think the family can contribute.  And that gap is usually pretty large.  And what we do at Dartmouth is we cover 100% of that gap with our financial aid award.  Now some schools do what’s known as “gapping,” which is they meet part of that difference, but not all of that difference.  And they basically leave it up to the students to figure out how they’re going to come up with the rest of the money…Our awards at Dartmouth are comprised of two parts.  The first is what we call “Self Help,” and the second is scholarship.   So self-help has two pieces.  One is…a work study job.  Usually 10-12 hours a week.  The second is a loan… And at Dartmouth, we’ve always tried to keep self help at a reasonable level.

We’ve [also] done a couple more things I think is important to mention as well.  For students from families where the income is below $75,000, they do not receive any loans at all in their financial aid package.  So their financial aid award is the work study job and then the rest of the award is all scholarship.  For students whose family income are above $75,000, there is a modest amount of loan each year, that’s part of the financial aid award, ranging from $2,500 to $5,500, depending on income.  And that’s per year…The average scholarship for incoming class this year is about $38,000.  So it gives you the sense of that $55,000 cost.

Q: In terms of your ability to fund these kids is, how much do you have set aside for financial aid?

A: We anticipate in this academic year, we’ll be spending upwards of $77 million in scholarships that we will award to our students.  So this is all based on need, so there are not athletic or academic or merit scholarships of any type, but this is all need-based scholarships that we award.

Q: Is that up or down or flat from last year?

A: It has increased a little bit from last year.  Last year was probably in the neighborhood of $75 to $76 million, so it has grown this year.  And a couple of interesting things that we’ve done, [in 2008] we enhanced our financial aid program, so that we moved to free tuition for all students with families with income below $75,000, and we’d actually gone to a completely no-loan program for all of our financial aid recipients.

Last year, in the wake of the downturn in the economy and the hit to the Dartmouth endowment, we had to put in a small amount of loan if the family income was above $75,000, so if you look at the students who graduated from Dartmouth last year…the Class of 2011…actually graduated with about $11,500 in debt. That’s because when we enhanced our financial aid program in the winter of ’08, we cut in half the amount of loan of our current students, and replaced that with scholarships.  So all students received some enhancement, not just the new students who were in the process of being admitted.

…So, because we were able to, at the time, sort of increase the amount of scholarship by removing the loans from our financial aid awards, we succeeded in further lower the debt that our students were taking on to graduate from Dartmouth.

Q: Looking at this [Project on Student Debt report], about three-quarters of [UNH students] have loans…But looking at Dartmouth, I’m seeing that 50% of your [students] don’t have loans at all…Are you taking in that many kinds below the $75,000 mark, or is there that in combination with the fact that you’ve got so many kids whose families are able to meet that need…that basically these kids don’t need any aid?

A: For students who don’t apply for financial aid, we really don’t know how their families are financing the cost of education. We don’t have data on that.  Because we have a need-blind financial process, we never know a student’s or family’s financial situation as we’re making admissions decisions. So if a student never applies for financial aid, we don’t have any good data on how they’re planning to finance their cost of education. And I do know that there are certainly families at Dartmouth who have the resources to…cover the cost of education, but I think there are also families who don’t qualify for need-based financial aid, but are utilizing other resources.

Q: There’s a perception as well that…a lot of people are backing off from Ivy League schools [because of the recession]. How has Dartmouth’s enrollment numbers over the past few years suffered under that effect at all?

A: Actually quite the contrary.  Our applicant pool has grown by 40 percent in the last four years.  And the number…of students…has been fairly constant, between 1,100 and 1,015 or so… Quite honestly, you know, my admissions colleagues and I, we travel around the country, travel around the world, give presentations about Dartmouth, and all is coming along beautifully, and then you put up the slide that shows the total cost.  And you can see the reaction of students and families who are looking at that, and you can tell what they’re thinking. There’s just no way.  And so then, we have spent a lot of time really, helping to unpack for families just why, in actuality, a school like Dartmouth can actually be more affordable than your own, in-state institution, because of the strength of the need-based financial aid program.

Average Private Four-Year College And University Debt In New Hampshire

College* Ave Debt % Grads w/Debt In-State Tuition/Fees Total Cost Of Attendance
Saint Anselm College $38,858 82% $30,515 $44,255
Rivier College $36,462 95% $23,965 $36,319
New England College $36,203 61% $27,450 $39,126
Thomas More College of Liberal Arts $28,194 86% $14,500 $25,200
Dartmouth College $18,712 51% $38,679 $52,973

*Several private institutions didn’t have their average student debt noted in the Project on Student Debt report because “some colleges did not report student debt data. Only colleges that granted bachelor’s degrees and reported the percentage of graduates with debt and average debt are included in the state figures.” Among the private New Hampshire schools that researchers didn’t have numbers for are: Chester College of new England, Colby-Sawyer College, Franklin Pierce University, Magdalen College, New Hampshire Institute of Art and Southern New Hampshire University.


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