PHOENIX - Student-loan debt at Arizona's three universities is below the national average for public schools, but students in the state are still seeing an increase in how much money they owe by the time they leave school.
The Arizona Republic reports that the average undergraduate student and graduate student who borrows money leaves with $22,178 and $47,803 in debt, respectively.
That marks a 26 percent increase for undergraduates and a 40 percent rise for graduate students since 2007.
Education and financial experts say growing debt is a big concern because students are on the hook to pay back more money once they graduate.
Advocates for promoting affordable college access say the fear of borrowing can prevent some people from even pursuing a degree at a time when employers view a college education as more important than ever. Or students may go to school part time or stop and start their education, which research shows reduces their chances of getting a degree.
Rising student-loan debt is being driven by a variety of factors, including a widening gap between increasing college costs and what students and their parents could afford to pay during the recession, according to a recent report by the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit organization that promotes affordable college access and compiles an annual report on student debt. In Arizona, the Board of Regents chose to sharply raise tuition after losing $428 million, or 50 percent, of its per-student state funding because of the state's fiscal crisis.
Since 2007, tuition and fees have gone up more than 90 percent at Arizona's three universities.
Earlier this year, the regents froze tuition rates for the first time in 20 years at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona. Northern Arizona University has offered a guaranteed-tuition plan for incoming freshmen for several years whereby their rates are frozen for four years.
Even though student-loan debt is rising, the state universities have traditionally been below the national average in student-loan debt. A national comparison with other four-year public colleges for fiscal 2012 was not available. But in the previous year, average debt for undergraduates was $23,800 nationally, compared with about $21,000 in Arizona, according to the College Board, a nonprofit agency that tracks financial aid and tuition. Nationally, 57 percent of undergraduates at public schools borrowed money, compared with 54 percent in Arizona.
In recent years, the state universities have added more lower-cost options for students. For instance, agreements with community colleges make it easier for students to transfer credits into the university system. This saves on the student's total cost of education because students are paying less for community-college courses. In August, Arizona State opened a campus in Lake Havasu City with lower tuition rates and hopes to expand that concept in other places.