By Carson Cook, Chattanooga, Tenn. —

Although student debt at UTC is lower than the national and statewide average, it is still a concern for many students.

The cost of college tuition has increased dramatically over the past few decades. According to information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the price of a college education increased 260 percent from 1980 to 2014.

At public institutions which rely on state funding, the numbers can be more dramatic. According to US News & World Report, in-state tuition and fees at public universities included in their college rankings increased 296 percent from just 1995 to 2015.

Jora Burnett, a junior from Maryville, Tenn., said that the growing cost of college tuition was one of the biggest concerns for students.

“If you look at the numbers for how much for undergrad as opposed to like our parents it’s risen to insane amounts,” said Burnett. 

This increase in college tuition prices has led to many students taking on debt to finance their college experience.

Jake Irwin, who graduated from UTK in 2014 and is an English graduate student, said he had a few friends who were “up to their eyeballs” in debt.

“I’m pretty sure many of my friends are paying off student debt or at least graduated with debt,” said Irwin.

Nationally 68 percent of students who graduated in 2015 had student loan debt, according to the Institute for College Access & Success’s project on student debt. The average debt was $30,100 per student, although this varies significantly state to state and between public and private institutions.  

For example, in a different study based on the class of 2011, the average debt was $26,600 per student. The average for students graduating from public 4-year institutions was $7,960, as opposed to $17,040 at private nonprofit schools and $31,190 at for-profit institutions.

In 2015, the average debt in Tennessee was $26,083 and 60 percent of students graduated with debt. Some credit the lower debt levels in Tennessee to the HOPE scholarship program. It remains to be seen, but many hope the Tennessee Promise program will lower student debt rates as well. 

The average debt of graduates from UTC was $23,009, which is less than the statewide and national average. A slightly smaller amount, 57 percent, of students graduate with debt. The average debt of UTC student correlates to a lower tuition compared to private institutions and larger public universities like UTK and MTSU. 

“I see a lot of people struggle with it, but at UTC we have more scholarships,” said Burnett.

The majority of Americans between 18 to 29 years old say that student debt is a major problem for young people in the United States, regardless of political affiliation, according to a study by Harvard’s Institute of Politics. In the same study, 70 percent reported that financial circumstances played an important role in their college decision.

Burnett said that the cost of college completely influenced her choice to attend UTC instead of private schools.

“As of right now, it will probably continue to be a problem until we as a country work on it. Higher education isn’t on the priority list,” said Burnett.

Irwin agreed it was an issue, saying that people who are focused on paying off their debt do not spend as much, putting money back into the economy.

“Not having debt has relieved a lot of stress on me,” said Irwin.

Several studies have show that while college graduates have higher average incomes, those with student debts can still struggle financially.

An ongoing survey by the American Student Assistance found that among those with student debt, 35 percent said they found it difficult to buy daily necessities, 52 percent said their debt affected their ability to make larger purchases such as a car, 55 percent said student loan debt affected their decision to purchase a home, and 62 percent said they have put off saving for retirement.

Winston Drain, with the financial aid office, advised students worried about debt to make a meeting with the financial wellness center to better understand their loans and make a payment plan. He said students should also apply for scholarship so they can borrow less.