Upon graduation, 68 percent of Southern Oregon University’s Class of 2016 had student debt, and that debt averaged $27,375, according to a report published in August by LendEDU.

The organization’s second annual student debt report was released Aug. 10 and features financial aid information provided voluntarily by 1,161 public and private colleges nationwide, including 18 four-year colleges and universities in Oregon.

“From the beginning, our goal was to create transparency in the student loan market, and one of the ways we do that is through data, like this report,” said Nathan Matherson, the founder and chief executive officer of LendEDU, a marketplace for student loans and student loan refinance.

In 2016, Pennsylvania had the highest student debt average ($35,185) in the nation, Utah had the lowest average ($18,810), and Oregon ranked 30th in the nation with a student loan average of $27,108.

In 2015, Portland State University had the highest debt average ($32,018) of any public university in the state, but in 2016, that title went to Western Oregon University, where graduates averaged $30,586 in federal student loans.

However, last year, 100 percent of Marylhurst University graduates had student loans, which averaged $51,833 — the highest average in the state and fifth highest in the country. Marylhurst is a private, liberal arts and business university south of Portland with adult-learners making up a large portion of its student body.

At SOU, the student loan average rose from $24,179 in 2015 to $27,375 in 2016, while the private student loan average dropped from $8,474 to $4,462.

Last year, 9 percent of SOU graduates had private student loans, according to the report.

Matherson explained that 90 percent of all student loans are issued by the U.S. Department of Education. Private student loans are those from banks and do not include credit cards or personal loans.

“In general, private student loans are much more expensive than federal,” he said. “The interest rates on private student loans can be as high as 15 percent, but on average, the interest rates are around 8 percent, whereas the interest rates on federal student loans are around 4 percent currently.”

To combat the rising costs of college, SOU spokesman Joe Mosely said the university’s financial aid office has been encouraging students through its Free Money First campaign to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which determines eligibility for federal grants and loans.

This year, SOU also increased its institutional aid budget from $3.5 million to $4 million to provide more “need-based financial aid,” Mosely said.

“(And) we’re trying to guide eligible high school students into programs that enable them to graduate from SOU in three years rather than four, and avoid a year's worth of higher education expenses,” he added.

SOU increased its tuition by 9 percent for the coming year, which amounts to just over $600 annually for a student taking a full load of classes.

Matherson said he encourages all college students to work while going to school, to not stop applying for scholarships and to explore refinancing student loans after graduation.

“The reason we do this report is to get students and families thinking about student loan debt before they go to college,” he said. “Too often we talk to students and families where student loan debt doesn’t become real to them until they graduate and have to start paying it back.”

For LendEDU's full report, see https://lendedu.com/blog/student-loan-debt-statistics-by-school-by-state-2017#Oregon.

— Reach education reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com.