Iowa’s newest college graduates share an old problem: debt

Courtesy of the Iowa Department of Education

By K. Rambo, IowaWatch

Some students graduating from an Iowa college or university this month will have to pay off debts that could be close to $100,000.

Other loans facing college students are far lower, and a lot of students have avoided debt. But for many, taking out loans remains necessary in order to go to college, an IowaWatch College Media journalism project showed.

“I don’t wanna be in debt, but I made the decision to come to school and I think for most students, when they make that decision, it’s kind of already married to the decision to take [out] student loans as well,” Nick Hodges, finishing his senior year in communication studies and writing at Coe College, said.

Hodges, 28, from Crawfordsville, Indiana, was one of several students interviewed at eight Iowa college campuses this spring for the IowaWatch project.

Brady Tobin, who just finished his senior year in math education at Cornell College, a private not-for-profit university, said he will leave the Mount Vernon college with nearly $100,000 in debt.

“I come from a middle-class family home and we did not have enough money to flat-out pay for my education, so we need my parents to take out some more loans in order to pay for college,” Tobin, 22, of Erie, Colorado, said.

Average debt for Cornell College graduates was $34,130 in 2017, the most recent year reported to the Iowa College Student Aid Commission.

Yearly tuition at Cornell College will be $43,550 for the 2019-20 academic year, nearly twice that of a nonresident student at Iowa’s three state universities. Tuition at the University of Northern Iowa was $8,938 for Iowa residents and $19,480 for nonresidents in the 2018-19 school year and nearly 70 percent of UNI graduates had debt upon graduation in 2017.

Brady Tobin, Cornell College graduate. — Matthew McDermott/IowaWatch

Resident undergraduate tuition at Iowa State University ranged from $7,740 to $8,237, depending on the major. Nonresident tuition at ISU ran from $22,144 to as high as $22,678, depending on the major, for the 2018-19 academic year.

“I don’t have any rich family members that would help me, so that was the only option if I wanted to continue my school,” Marissa Jerinnie, 21 and finishing her sophomore year at ISU, said about taking out loans that she anticipates will leave her $30,000 to $40,000 in debt when she graduates.

Complete debt data for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years don’t exist yet, but students graduating from not-for-profit, four-year universities in Iowa faced an average of $30,595 in student loan debt in 2017, according to the Iowa College Aid Commission.

This number is nearly as high as the median per capita income of $30,865 in Iowa in 2017, according to the Iowa Data Center.


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Average debt carried by students graduating from a private, not-for-profit university in Iowa was $33,878 for the same year. The average when graduating from the University of Iowa, ISU and UNI, run by the state’s Board of Regents, was $27,313 in 2017, according to the Iowa College Aid Commission. That was a decrease from the average of $27,575 in 2016.

But the average debt for students graduating from private, not-for-profit universities has increased steadily each year from 2013 through 2017, resulting in a 7 percent total increase in that time.

While tuition differed between private and public institutions in Iowa, the reasons for borrowing for college were the same across the campuses at which IowaWatch spoke with students: the cost was too high for students and their families to pay out of pocket.

“I didn’t have access to that large sum of money upfront, and that was the main motivator for borrowing the amount of money per semester,” said Madelyn Orton, 21, of West Point, Iowa, finishing her junior year in English and communications at Mount Mercy University.

Orton said she only spent money from loans on books and tuition. Still, Orton said she will have an estimated $25,000 in student loan debt upon graduation.

Jerinnie, of Minneapolis, grew up in a single-parent household. She said ISU was one of her top choices when picking a college, but paying out-of-state tuition has become so burdensome she is transferring to a school in her home state.

“I know if I did go to a community college or school in Minnesota, I knew I wouldn’t be in as much debt as I am right now,” Jerinnie said. “But, I don’t regret it [going to Iowa State] because I also did want to get away from home to just kind of be on my own, and so it did teach me a lot.”

Joshua Cole-Brodanx graduates from Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids this spring. — Logan Schroeder/IowaWatch

While the average debt upon graduation at ISU was lower than the average at private schools in Iowa, the number still sat at $27,643 as of 2017. An IowaWatch survey of Iowa State students done with the Iowa State Daily showed anecdotally that seven of every 10 among the 136 responding had debt related to being in college.

Peyton Gries, 23, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, graduating from UI this month with a degree in enterprise leadership, said she has $42,300 in student loan debt.

Her original major, human physiology, was demanding, so she put off getting a job her freshman and sophomore year to focus on school, she said. Gries worked two jobs after changing her major, which has helped. However, “I wish that I’d been more adamant about getting a job freshman and sophomore year,” she said.

Average debt for graduating UI seniors was $28,405 in 2017. In-state tuition at Iowa was $9,492 for the 2018-19 academic year, and $31,458 for out-of-state tuition.

Help from home, college grants, savings and scholarships are key to keeping college debt down. Joshua Cole-Brodnax, 22, from Rock Island, Illinois, said he graduates this month with little debt and degrees in English and criminal justice from Mount Mercy University.

“The way I have it set up right now, it’s actually put me in a pretty good spot,” Cole-Brodnax said. “I don’t owe anyone any huge massive amounts of money, all my bills have been paid on time. I have been pretty blessed to have everything paid off the way I need it to.”

Kelsey Ryder, assistant director of financial literacy and counseling at UI, said the university takes several steps to explain how loans work. Ryder said she thinks some students don’t have a full grasp on the implications of borrowing for education.

“They can reduce the loan if they want, so our students definitely should have an understanding of what they’re borrowing every year, through those steps,” she said.

Ryder also said UI requires students to complete private loan counseling before they can borrow private loans.

Sam Riley is a junior at Coe College. — Antonio Perez/IowaWatch

Pamela Perry, director of financial planning and assistance at Cornell College for more than 20 years, said she tells students and families to pursue outside funding for college.

The cost of attending Cornell College and other private colleges and universities increases because of necessary upgrades and increased salaries and health care costs at the institutions, Perry said. The costs rise over time.

“With facelifts to all the buildings and people wanting nicer athletic facilities and residence halls, all of those things cost money for colleges to be able to provide to students, and I think colleges feel the need to do that to stay competitive,” Perry said.

Sam Riley, 21, of St. Ansgar, Iowa, and a junior in public relations and political science at Coe College in the just-ended school year, said he will owe more than $15,000 in student loans upon graduation.

“I didn’t borrow for books or anything, it’s all gone towards tuition and also room and board,” Riley said.

Room and board was a significant factor for students who decided to borrow loans. Nolan Boggess, 22, of Urbandale, graduating in theater at Grinnell College with $57,000 in debt, borrowed $17,000 in his first year at Grinnell and about $10,000 went to room and board. Boggess moved and signed on for a less-expensive meal plan as a second-year student, but still needed to borrow.

While loans have been helpful to students completing their degrees, the catch is, of course, loans have to be paid back.

“You know I think that college debt is a growing problem. It’s a lot of responsibility for our generation to put on their shoulders,” said Mason Flynn, a St. Ambrose University student from Dubuque, finishing his junior year. Flynn, who will turn 23 later this month, is majoring in sales.

“So many our age, a lot of people don’t have a big enough grasp to think long term — 10, 20, 30 years down the road — when you have a lot of cash in your hand,” Flynn said.

Jacqueline Campbell is a Iowa State University alumnus with years of experience with student loan debt. — K. Rambo/Iowa Watch

Jacqueline Campbell, 37, from Clear Lake, received her undergraduate degree in genetics and zoology, and a master’s degree in genetics, from ISU. She said she wanted to live the full college experience — a decision that cost her thousands of dollars in the long run. Campbell used student loans to live in Fredrickson Court, one of the most expensive on-campus housing options, and engaged in social activities often associated with college students.

“[When] people said ‘let’s go on this cool weekend trip,’ I spend the extra money,” she said. “So, I did those things. I did exactly what the financial adviser in high school said ‘don’t do.’”

Campbell said she also used surplus money from loans when personal expenses became necessary.

She received advice while in high school, but ISU financial aid advisers and loan officers were willing to loan her money regardless of the need, she said. The expectation was to borrow because few can afford to pay tuition exclusively out of pocket or entirely with grants and scholarships, she said.

Campbell said it wasn’t until she began attending workshops on paying off debt provided by her church and planning carefully with her husband that she made significant progress.

It took her several years and sacrifice to pay back the more than $90,000 she borrowed as a student, she said. She finished paying off her loans in early 2019, saying she still drives an old car and wears clothes that are several years old.

“I’m trying to, right now, save up a little money to have a ‘I paid off my student loan debt’ party, because this is huge,” Campbell said.

“Ninety-thousand dollars is off my back.”

The following student journalists contributed to this Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism report: Lauren Wade and Molly Hunter, University of Iowa; Matthew McDermott, Cornell College; Lily Bohlke, Grinnell College; Omar Alcorta, Guy Tannenbaum, Cooper Maahs, Allyssa Ertz, Iran Carlos, Tyler Brunner, Tanner Frost, Job Saunders, all of Buena Vista University; Logan Schroeder, Mount Mercy University; Claudia Chiappa and Antonio Perez, Coe College; and Oliden Herrera, St. Ambrose University. Read more at

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