California public college grads have billions in student loan debt – but it could be worse

California college graduates in 2015 and 2016 racked up more than $10 billion in federal student loan debt. But they had it better than students in other states.

New federal data shows that Californians who received degrees from the public University of California and California State University systems in those two years have significantly less student debt than their counterparts across the country.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, which crunched the federal numbers, 42 percent of 2015 and 2016 grads who received bachelor degrees from the public university system had federal student loan debt, compared to 53 percent in the rest of the United States.

And 40 percent of doctoral students in the California public university system had debt versus 50 percent in the other 49 states.

The difference is even more stark at the community college level: just 6 percent of Californians who received associate’s degrees in 2015 and 2016 took on debt, nearly five times less than the national rate of 29 percent.

The average amount of debt U.C. and Cal State grads reported was also lower at all degree levels, except for those obtaining a master’s degree.

Although tuition has been rising as California’s public colleges and universities, it has been at a far slower pace than most states in the country. Experts credit California’s robust financial aid program for helping keep student debt lower, although the state has not been as good at keeping up with increases in non-tuition costs — like housing and food — a report last year from the Institute for College Access and Success found.

The picture is notably different for graduates of private universities in California. Just over half of students who received undergraduate degrees from private nonprofit institutions in 2015 and 2016 had some student loan debt, roughly the same as the national rate. And the average debt was nearly identical: $23,600 for the California students versus $23,700 for those in the rest of the country.

Californians who obtained advanced degrees — master’s, doctoral and professional degrees, like a J.D. or M.D. — from private nonprofit universities in the state reported significantly more debt than those outside the state.

Graduates of for-profit universities in California also had comparable levels of debt as students nationwide, except for professional degree holders, who incurred almost $100,000 less in debt than their counterparts elsewhere.

As the Public Policy Institute of California observed, “High demand for many graduate professional programs coupled with expectations of earnings premiums account for both the higher tuition and students’ willingness to take on debt.”

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Emily Cadei works out of the McClatchy Washington bureau, where she covers national politics and writes the Impact2020 newsletter. A native of Sacramento, she has spent more than a decade in D.C. reporting on U.S. elections, Congress and foreign affairs for publications including Newsweek, Congressional Quarterly and Roll Call.