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By Sean Gorman December 24, 2012

McDonnell says Virginia college graduates facing average $25,000 debt

As the father of five young adults, Gov. Bob McDonnell says he feels the pain of rising college tuition.

"The average kid comes out of Virginia colleges with about $25,000 plus in debt, and that’s just not acceptable long-term," he said during a Dec. 6 news conference.

No doubt, a college education is expensive. But we wondered if the governor’s debt figure is correct.

Paul Logan, a McDonnell spokesman, said his boss’s statement is based on data in an October 2012 report by the Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit group that annually examines the debt loads of graduates.

The study tallied the average student debt in each state for the 2010-2011 academic year. Among Virginia graduates who had taken out loans, the average debt was $24,717, ranking 23rd highest in the nation.

That’s pretty close to McDonnell’s number, but there’s a major caveat: that figure only averages the debt of students who took out loans. It does not take into account those who were fortunate enough to graduate without debt.

The institute’s figures show that 59 percent of Virginia students graduated with debt and 41 percent did not.

The group’s website said the average debt among Virginia graduates who got bachelor degrees during the 2010-11 school year was $14,628.

The debt data comes from answers colleges provide to a survey by Peterson’s, a college guide publishing company. Peterson’s survey, which looks at students graduating from four-year public universities and private nonprofit colleges, was answered by 55 percent of colleges and universities that awarded bachelor’s degrees in the 2010-2011 school year.

The institute says there are limitations to the figures it uses in its report. Very few for-profit colleges report figures on student debt, and those schools typically generate high borrowing, the report says. And because the data is provided voluntarily, colleges "may actually have a disincentive for honest and full reporting," the study says. The group also says that colleges may not be aware of the full private loan debt held borne by their graduates.

Despite those concerns, the institute says the Peterson survey is the only data that allows analysis of student debt among bachelors’ degrees recipients.

One final note: Student loans by no means encompass all the money borrowed for college. In 2011, the federal government disbursed $10.6 billion in Parent Plus loans to just under 1 million families, according to a report by ProPublica and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Our ruling

McDonnell said the average student graduating from Virginia colleges is about $25,000 in debt.

The study he cites says that’s the level of debt among students who have taken out loans.

But McDonnell omits a key point. The average he cited doesn’t count a large number of students who graduated debt free. When they are included, the average is $14,628.

So we rate his claim Half True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Gov. Bob McDonnell’s remarks at AP Day, Dec. 6, 2012.

E-mail from Paul Logan, spokesman for Gov. Bob McDonnell, Dec. 18, 2012.

The Project on Student Debt, "Student debt and the class of 2011,"  October 2012.

E-mail from Shannon Gallegos, spokeswoman for the Institute of College Access and Success, Dec. 18, 2012.

The Project on Student Debt, "List of Virginia Institutions,"  accessed Dec. 18, 2012.

PolitiFact Ohio, "Sherrod Brown says Ohio students graduate from college with an average tuition debt of $27,000,"  May 7, 2012.

New York Times, "Student-Loan borrowers average $26,500 in debt, Oct. 18, 2012.

State Council of Higher Education for Virginia,"Presentation to the Higher Education Advisory Committee,"  July 17, 2012.

ProPublica and The Chronicle of Higher Education, "No income? No Problem. How the government is saddling parents with college loans they can’t afford," Oct. 4, 2012. 

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McDonnell says Virginia college graduates facing average $25,000 debt

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