Study: Arizona Shouldn't Be Blue About College Debt; Students in Only 6 States Less in the Red

Study: Arizona Shouldn't Be Blue About College Debt; Students in Only 6 States Less in the Red
Tom Carlson

click to enlarge TOM CARLSON
Tom Carlson
Walk into any college classroom these days and you are bound to hear accounts, even tearful ones, of millennials and post-millennial Z-Geners working ridiculous hours to avoid a crushing student debt they never expect to pay off.

The casual classroom visitor might be tempted to think Arizona, with the largest public university in the country, is drowning in student debt.

But a new study released today by a startup company that tries to help bail some of those debt waters shows the average student debt in Arizona is seventh-lowest in the country at around $23,600 per debtor.

Yes, it’s true: You’re reading a story about Arizona not being near dead last in something important.

Researchers and LendEDU, a kind of Lending Tree for students, wanted to know if red states equal red ink or blue states equate with blue students.

It turns out that students in states with two Democratic U.S. senators carry more debt, but students in Republican states, like Arizona, default on loans more often. Split states — those with a senator from each party — are in the middle on defaulting but worst of all on debt loads.

What’s it mean?

Maybe nothing.

Here is a course in statistics 101 for free: Correlation is not causation, which is a fancy way of saying just because two things tend to happen in tandem doesn’t mean one causes the other. For instance, Phoenix has the highest average daytime high temperatures of any major U.S. city and also historically does really badly in red-light running rates. So is the sun baking drivers’ brains? Probably coincidence.

Take into account that the LendEDU researchers only looked at four-year public and private colleges, but not for-profit colleges. Researchers only studied debt figures for the class of 2015, and the data were volunteered by colleges to a third-party data collection outfit.

On the political half of the equation, researchers compiled data for 356 U.S. Representatives. There are 435 members of the House of Representatives, when they show up.

So with grain of salt firmly pinched, LendEDU does reach what it called interesting findings.

The worst congressional district in these United States measured for average debt load is in Connecticut. There, a typical college student owes close to 43 grand. It’s a Democratic district. Chalk up a point for Team Red.

But seven of the 10 most indebted districts are Republican-held. Red 1, Blue 1.

In one Democrat-held seat in North Carolina, 92 percent of students were in debt. But all of the next 13 were in Red districts.

In one Ohio district, one in five students defaulted on loans. Maybe they don’t teach economics in Bowling Green State University.

By contrast, there is a place in California, Northridge, where nobody defaulted on student loans. And, yes, it has students, about 2,200 of them. They are represented by a Democrat.

Okay, what about states? And how do we in the Grand Canyon State shape up?

All of the five most indebted states are in New England or the mid-Atlantic states, with Connecticut and New Hampshire topping the list. Only one Republican U.S. senator represents these five states.

The five healthiest are all Pacific or Mountain states. In order they are: Utah, New Mexico, Wyoming, California, and Nevada, represented by five of each party.

As we said, Arizona ranks seventh, just above Florida.

New Mexico and Alaska have the highest default rates, at 18 and 12 percent, respectively.

Delaware somehow reports no student defaults. Maybe it has something to do with that state’s large financial sector or its opaque business reporting habits. After that, a string of six states have between 3 and 4 percent of their students walking away.

Here’s a sobering tidbit. In 44 states, more than half the students are in debt. More than three-quarters of New Hampshire students are in debt. “Live Free or Die?” Looks like they are going for Door Number 2. It’s hard to be free when you and two of your three besties are saddled with $35,000 in debts.

Since you asked, 56 percent of Arizona students are in debt, and almost 7 percent give up on paying it.

If you’re still holding on that grain of salt, let’s look at the politics.

The whole reason LendEDU commissioned the study was to gin up some political advocacy for easing the woes of indebted students. Researchers wanted to know if lawmakers were doing right by students in their constituency and if the positions of elected officials bore any significance on college debt.

Almost every single Democrat in the U.S. Senate supported legislation to lower the interest rates on college loans. Same thing for legislation to allow the federal government to refinance loans and for supporting Pell Grants, those financial aid donations which help low-income students get to college.

Over on the red side of the aisle, 79 percent agreed with lowering rates, but only 22 percent supported Pell Grants and 2 percent were down with Uncle Sam refi’s.

Debt forgiveness legislation: three-quarters of Democrats say yea, joined by only 8 percent of Republicans.

Instead, a quarter of the party of Lincoln supports measures to improve financial literacy, while about a third want to offer tax benefits to ease the burden of an education. The party of that other Illinois leader backs financial literacy measures 37 percent of the time and tax breaks 72 percent of the time.

In other words, the only thing most Democratic senators don’t support is teaching students how to be smart about balancing their books. And the only thing most Republican senators do support is lowering the interest rates.

The Arizona delegation generally follows the same pattern.

Conclusion: Democrats appear willing to throw money at the problem, but not eager to hold people accountable for paying it back; Republicans appear to be unforgiving and stingy.

So red-state students, there is plenty to be blue about and blue-state academics have plenty to be red-faced about.

See both of you in line at the soup kitchen.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Sean Holstege is the editor of Phoenix New Times. He's been a print news reporter for 35 years. He was an investigative reporter at The Arizona Republic and the Oakland Tribune. He won a Sigma Delta Chi award for investigative reporting. He’s covered transportation, terrorism, the border, disasters, child welfare, courts, and breaking news.
Contact: Sean Holstege