A recent report from the Utah System of Higher Education, meanwhile, found that Utah's spending per degree awarded is the third lowest in the nation, at about $42,000 (Florida is lowest). So Utah appears to be getting the best of both worlds: low debt on students and low burden on taxpayers.
"A good share of it is explained by low tuition. We have the fourth-lowest in the country, so it's cheaper, and Utah has an aversion to debt," said Commissioner of Higher Education William Sederburg. "It's an indication of an efficient system."
He said Utah promotes concurrent enrollment and transferability of credit among institutions, which help students graduate sooner by avoiding redundant courses.
Education Sector's new debt measure provides a more complete picture of schools' performance than simply graduation rates, default rates or average debt, according to report authors Kevin Carey and Erin Dillon, policy analysts for the think tank. They made their calculations by adding up the volume of federal loans at every school between 2006 and '07 and 2008 and '09, then dividing those figures by the number of credentials schools awarded during that period.
Schools with poor graduation rates should have high ratios, even if borrowing is low.
"The borrowing-to-credential ratio is a red flag, but it won't tell you what, exactly, is wrong," Dillon wrote in a blog post. "It still does a good job of simultaneously capturing the two variables we wanted to measure: dropouts and debt."
Nationally, their report paints a troubling picture:
• The overall ratio of borrowing to credential has "risen sharply" in recent years.
• The for-profit sector is racking up student debt much faster than other sectors.
• Ratios among states' public systems vary widely.
From 2007 to 2009, the ratio average climbed by 35 percent, from $13,443 to $18,102.
"Borrowing is increasingly the norm in American higher education," the report states. "The long-term consequences of ﬂoating colleges on a sea of debt have yet to be fully realized, as a growing number of students leave school with tens of thousands of dollars in loans that can take as long as 30 years to repay and cannot be discharged in bankruptcy."
While college affordability remains a concern among Utahns, these findings offer more evidence that the nation's student-debt crisis has yet to strike here.
Utah has one of the lowest student loan default rates in the nation, as well as one of the lowest rates of student borrowing and average debt loads, according to the Project on Student Debt. This might not necessarily be a good thing if students are delaying graduation and working so many hours to pay for school that their grades suffer.
"If you are taking six or seven years, but with reasonable borrowing you can finish in four years, you might be better off [to borrow]. Your earning potential can outweigh the debt you take on," said David Fietz, executive director for the Utah Higher Education Assistance Authority.
The debt-to-degree ratio varies among Utah's public schools from $1,622 at the former College of Eastern Utah (now USU Eastern) to $11,849 at Utah Valley University.
The Utah picture is not uniformly rosy. Some of the for-profit schools have steep debt-to-degree ratios: Stevens-Henager College weighed in at $65,000 and the Utah College of Massage Therapy at $30,400.
But Utah's scale breaker was Western Governors University, a private nonprofit online school headquartered in Salt Lake City, at $80,000. However, officials believe that poor showing is the result of a statistical anomaly, not evidence that WGU students are drowning in debt, since the school's annual tuition is only $6,000.
Education Sector's study period coincided with steep enrollment growth of 30 to 40 percent a year at WGU, according to spokeswoman Joan Mitchell. That meant there were lots of new students, many of them adult learners with hefty financial obligations beyond school, taking out student loans but still working toward their degrees at the end-of-study period, she said.
That also explains UVU's high showing relative to other public Utah schools. The Orem campus, which achieved university status in 2009, has also seen rapid enrollment grown during the study period and serves large numbers of adult learners.
Utah andstudent debt
Average debt of 2009 graduates • $12,860(lowest in nation)
Percent with debt •38 (second-lowest)
Two-year default rate • 1.9 percent (second-lowest)
Source: Project on Student Debt
How much debt should you take on?
Students should limit their debt so their repayment load does not exceed 8 percent of their gross income when they start working. If a student expects to earn $35,000 a year, for example, his or her debt should stay below $20,000. Under10-year terms at 6.8 percent interest, such debt means a monthly payment of $230.