In addition to a diploma, 2009 Southern Oregon University graduates walked away from college with $24,000 in student loans on average.

In addition to a diploma, 2009 Southern Oregon University graduates walked away from college with $24,000 in student loans on average.

"I really believe that an investment in education is an investment in the future," said Peg Blake, SOU's dean of enrollment management. "But in the short term it's very, very difficult."

Student debt at SOU has increased in recent years, Blake said. Exact figures on the increase were not immediately available, she said.

"It has inched up," she said. "I wouldn't say that it has jumped up. I don't think the changes have been huge."

Last year, SOU graduates carried an average of $19,975 in federal student loans and $4,052 in private loans, Blake said.

According to a national report released in November, 2008 SOU graduates had the highest student loan debt of all Oregon University System graduates that year.

However, Blake said she disputes the data in the report by The Project on Student Debt, part of the Institute for College Access & Success in Berkeley, Calif.

SOU officials believe the figures the university reported were high estimates, SOU spokesman Jim Beaver said.

"We guess that somebody gave it to them by just doing an estimate and not a real calculation of the accurate figure," he said.

"Whereas all the numbers for all the other campuses are exact figures, ours was rounded off to three digits."

Still, the average amount of debt among SOU graduates is likely higher than at many Oregon public universities, Blake said. This is despite the fact that SOU's 16-credit tuition is the lowest of any public university in Oregon, according to Beaver.

High unemployment in Southern Oregon due to the recession has likely contributed to the increase — and made it more difficult for some graduates to pay off their loans, Blake said.

"You don't like to see anybody taking on any additional debt in this economy because jobs are difficult to find and hard to keep in this time," she said.

Contact staff writer Hannah Guzik at 482-3456 ext. 226 or hguzik@dailytidings.com.