Average student loan debt tops $25,000

November 3, 2011: 5:22 AM ET

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Students graduating from college last year walked away with more than a diploma, they also left with a record level of student loan debt.

College seniors who took out loans to fund their college education owed an average of $25,250, 5% more than the class of 2009 owed, according to a report from the Institute for College Access & Success' Project on Student Debt.

Thanks to rising tuition and the weak economy, students were forced to rely more heavily on loans to pay for their college education. If it weren't for a significant increase in federal grant aid, however, the increase in student loan debt could have been even higher, the Project on Student Debt said.

"Most students in the Class of 2010 started college before the recent economic downturn, but the economy soured while they were still in school, widening the gap between rising college costs and what students and their parents could afford," the report stated.

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Making matters worse, 2010 graduates suffered an unemployment rate of 9.1% when they graduated in 2010 -- up from 8.7% in 2009 and the highest level on record. But that's still less than half the 20.4% unemployment rate for those who don't get a college degree, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Debt loads varied dramatically depending on the state -- anywhere from an average of $15,500 in Utah to $31,050 in New Hampshire. Not so surprisingly, the ranges were even more dramatic on the school level, with average debts ranging from $950 to $55,250. The overall number of students who graduated with loans spanned from 2% to 100% of the student body.

Out of the survey of more than 1,000 colleges, 98 colleges said their 2010 graduating class owed an average of more than $35,000, and 73 colleges reported that more than 90% of students graduated with some amount of debt.

State-by-state debt: Students attending schools in the Northeast and the Midwest left school with the biggest debt burdens, while students in the West carried the least amount of debt.

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In New Hampshire, home to schools including Dartmouth and University of New Hampshire, students had the highest level of debt -- an average of $31,048. That was followed by Maine, where students carried an average of $29,983 in student loan debt.

Students in Utah, which boasts Brigham Young University and Utah State, had the lowest levels of debt, with $15,509 on average, while students in Hawaii carried debt loads of $15,550.

Debt load by college: Tuition and fees, cost of living and demographics all play a part in a student's debt load. While The Project on Student Debt said its campus-level data wasn't reliable enough to actually rank colleges by their debt, it did highlight the "high debt" schools and the "low debt" schools.

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The schools where students graduated with the highest average debt loads -- between $29,800 and $45,350 -- include New York University, California Institute of the Arts, Florida Institute of Technology, Kentucky State University and Temple University.

Schools with the lowest average debt -- between $950 and $8,700 -- include Williams College, Princeton University and College of the Ozarks.

The 1,067 colleges that were polled represent half of all public and private nonprofit four-year schools, and three-quarters of the class of 2010. The Project on Student Debt noted that because the data is voluntarily reported by colleges, actual debt is probably higher than its report shows. To top of page

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