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Students are borrowing more money than ever to pay for college. Graduates in 2010 carried five percent more debt than the previous year's graduates. And as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, debt is expected to keep growing.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Last week, we learned that college tuition costs went up around five percent. This week, the Project on Student Debt reports that student borrowing went up at the same rate. Lauren Asher tracks loan amounts for the California non-profit.
LAUREN ASHER: For the class of 2010, about two-thirds of all graduates had loans. And their average debt was $25,250.
ABRAMSON: The data does not include for-profit schools, where enrollment has been climbing and where loan levels tend to be much higher. Now, you might expect the most expensive schools to have the highest levels of debt. Lauren Asher says that's not necessarily the case.
ASHER: Even colleges with the same sticker prices and similar student bodies can have very different shares of students with debt and very different average debt for those who borrow.
ABRAMSON: So, a low-cost, public school like Alabama A&M produces graduates with an average debt of over $31,000. Spokeswoman Wendy Kobler says it's simply a result of shrinking state funding for this historically black college.
WENDY KOBLER: The reduction in state support has significantly impacted the amount of grant and aid that we are able to offer our students.
ABRAMSON: Meanwhile, the sticker price for Williams College in Massachusetts is around $55,000 a year. But students there only borrow around $8,000 on average. Spokesman Jim Kolesar says that's a result of a huge endowment. It's also part of the school's commitment to admit everyone who qualifies, regardless of need.
JIM KOLESAR: And the vast majority of the way that that need is met is through grant. The average grant is, in fact, more than $40,000.
ABRAMSON: If these numbers are a little overwhelming to you, you're not alone. Families and students get confused by the aid process. Sometimes, they choose schools that end up costing them more than they expect, and that leads to more debt.
The federal government is trying to clear up the confusion. Raj Date of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau says his agency is teaming up with the Department of Education to clarify confusing terms in financial aid offers.
RAJ DATE: You might have a loan that is called an institutional loan from one school. And in another school, the exact same loan might be called a private loan. But it's describing the same thing.
ABRAMSON: The hope is this information will help students avoid a lifetime of debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. The White House is also expanding programs that limit how much of their income students must pay. Date says it's all part of an effort to police the huge amount of debt held by students.
DATE: Student lending is a big, big market. It is bigger than the credit card business. It is bigger than the auto finance business. It is something that is between $500 billion and a trillion dollars in outstandings.
ABRAMSON: One big question is will these numbers continue to grow? Lauren Asher of the Project on Student Debt says the numbers for the class of 2010 could have been worse, but...
ASHER: There were substantial increases in grant aid for students, particularly the federal Pell grant.
ABRAMSON: Budget hawks in Congress have given every sign that students cannot expect more aid increases in the future. That could make substantial debt the norm for more and more students.
Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.
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