Statesí Strong Education Systems Often Cost Students

 Lauren Camera,

Just because a state is leading the pack in early childhood education offerings and has a powerhouse K-12 education system doesn't mean it hits the high notes when it comes to higher education.

The 2018 U.S News Best States ranking data show that of the states ranked in the top 10 for education, half rank in the bottom half of states for low debt at graduation, including New Hampshire, which comes in 49th despite ranking fourth for education overall, and Massachusetts, which ranks 44th in low debt at graduation despite ranking No. 1 in education overall.

The average debt of graduates with loans from public and private four-year colleges and universities in New Hampshire was more than $36,000 in 2016, according to The Institute for College Access and Success, and 75 percent of the state's graduates graduate with debt. In Massachusetts, the average debt is nearly $32,000, and 60 percent graduate with debt.

States that do a good job of educating their citizens also tend to do a lot of other things right. They harbor robust and growing economies, strong health care systems, low rates of crime and other positive quality-of-life measures. Like last year, many of the states at the top of the Best States ranking, also top the list for education.

In fact, eight of the states ranked in the top 10 overall also landed in the top 10 for education, including Iowa, which nabbed this year's No. 1 spot as best state and ranked fifth on education. Other states making the top 10 list for both overall best state and for best state for education include Massachusetts, Utah, Washington, New Hampshire, Vermont, Nebraska and North Dakota.

But in zeroing in on states' performance in higher education, something stands out: States with otherwise strong education systems show up at the bottom of the charts for higher education.

When it comes to tuition and fees, the top education states are decidedly the poorest performers: Four of the top 10 states for education overall are in the bottom 10 for average tuition and required fees for public four-year institutions for in-state students. Vermont, which ranks eighth overall in education, is dead last, with New Hampshire tailing it in 49th place, followed by New Jersey and Massachusetts, which ranked 46th and 43th, respectively.

In Vermont, the average tuition a fees for public four-year institutions for in-state students is about $15,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the U.S. Department of Education's statistical arm. While the state's average debt is $28,662 – the middle of the pack for the entire country – a whopping 63 percent of students graduate with debt despite Vermont only conferring 6,160 degrees in 2016, according to TICAS.

New Hampshire tails Vermont closely in average tuition and fees by just a few dollars, while the cost in New Jersey is about $13,000 and about $12,000 in Massachusetts.

The U.S. News ranking for best education states includes metrics that cover both pre-kindergarten, K-12 education and higher education. Taken collectively, they account for 15.5 percent of the overall Best States ranking, second only to health care, which accounts for 16.1 percent.

At play, policy experts explain, is that states with the best K-12 education systems – those where students score well on math and reading tests, graduate high school in large numbers and score higher on college entrance exams such as the SAT or ACT – are generally the wealthier states in the country. And while there are many reasons for that, one of the biggest is that the lion's share of K-12 revenue is generated through property taxes.

Those states, in turn, enroll more students in college – and often the upper echelon, pricier schools at that – which in turn increases the chances that they graduate with student debt.

"High school performance is generally correlated with state median income," says CJ Libassi, a higher education policy analyst the Center for American Progress. "You could imagine as states get richer, students do better in a K-12 system. Richer students are also more likely to go to private and nonprofit colleges, which are typically more expensive."

"Really, what you're picking up there is the chance that students who graduate from good K-12 schools, go to more expensive schools of higher education," Libassi says.

That would help explain what's at play in Massachusetts, for example, which ranks No. 2 for college readiness and No. 1 in education attainment, doling out nearly 60,000 diplomas in 2016, according to TICAS.

The Bay State is a higher education mecca awash in expensive private, nonprofit schools: Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston University, Boston College, Williams College and Amherst College, to name just a few.

"The mix of what share of schools at a particular state are public or private may drive that," says Diane Cheng, associate research directors for TICAS. "Generally graduates of public colleges have less debt, so many of the high debt states have lots of graduates from private nonprofit colleges."

In Massachusetts, she says, 66 percent of graduates graduate from from private, nonprofit schools, whereas the national trend is that only 31 percent of bachelor's degree recipients earn a degrees from private, nonprofit colleges and 69 percent do so from public schools.

"Because there are twice the share of graduates coming from private colleges in Massachusetts," she says, "that's a big reason for why they have relatively high debt."

The same is true for New Hampshire, she says, where a much higher share of graduates earn a degree from private, nonprofit schools.

Also at play, Libassi says: "Richer students have more of a willingness to pay for a higher priced education, and a better ability to finance out loans."

Indeed, a policy brief from the Urban Institute looks at recently released Survey of Consumer Finances for 2016, which shows that households in the top quartile of the income distribution, or those with incomes above $81,140 in 2016, accounted for about half of all outstanding education debt. And the top 10 percent of households – those with incomes of $144,720 or higher – held 24 percent of the debt.

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