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Slide Show | January 2013

10 Best Public Colleges, Lowest Debt at Graduation

As prices continue to outpace inflation at both public and private colleges, it's no surprise that two-thirds of college graduates end up borrowing to help pay for their college education. In 2011, student borrowers graduated with an average of $26,600 in student loans, according to the Project on Student Debt.

These ten schools from our 2013 list of best values in public colleges offer academic quality as well as enough financial support to help students earn their diploma while keeping student debt manageable. Four of the schools on our list get students to graduation day with an average debt of less than $15,000.


10 Best Public Colleges, Lowest Debt at Graduation

1. North Georgia College & State University

Avg. debt at graduation: $10,128

In-state rank: #96

Undergrad enrollment: 5,541

Annual in-state cost: $14,382

Annual out-of-state cost: $26,658

Students who borrow: 55%

Nestled in the Appalachian Mountains in Dahlonega, Ga., about an hour's drive north of Atlanta, North Georgia College & State University stands on what was once the U.S. Mint's Dahlonega location. The steeple of Price Memorial Hall is covered with gold leaf, harking to the town's gold-rush history.

The below-average cost of attendance ($14,382, compared with the $17,860 average for public colleges), as well as the generous HOPE scholarship available to in-state students, allow students to graduate with an average of only $10,128 in debt, less than half the national average and the lowest amount on our list.

1. North Georgia College & State University

2. California State University, Long Beach

Avg. debt at graduation: $12,401

In-state rank: #82

Undergrad enrollment: 29,287

Annual in-state cost: $19,688

Annual out-of-state cost: $30,848

Students who borrow: 42%

Only 30% of applicants are admitted to this campus, which is part of the California State University system, but more than half of those who attend receive need-based aid. Merit aid averages nearly $3,000, helping to reduce students' need to borrow.

The school's 322-acre campus, located about 25 miles south of Los Angeles, overlooks the Pacific Ocean.

2. California State University, Long Beach

3. SUNY Oneonta

Avg. debt at graduation: $13,697

In-state rank: #59

Undergrad enrollment: 5,852

Annual in-state cost: $18,119

Annual out-of-state cost: $27,369

Students who borrow: 75%

SUNY Oneonta, located halfway between Albany and Binghamton, awards nearly $2.5 million in scholarships each year based on academic achievement. The awards range from $1,000 to $5,870.

While the percentage of students who take out loans is among the highest on our list of 100 public colleges, the average amount that each student owes at graduation--$13,697--is only about half the national average ($26,600).

3. SUNY Oneonta

4. New College of Florida

Avg. debt at graduation: $14,172

In-state rank: #7

Undergrad enrollment: 845

Annual in-state cost: $16,181

Annual out-of-state cost: $39,210

Students who borrow: 32%

This small college located in Sarasota, Fla., was founded as a private college in 1960 but joined the state university system in 1975. The school shares its campus with the University of South Florida.

Not only do 90% of New College students receive financial aid, but the average need-based aid brings the total cost for in-state students to a bargain $7,674. Only 32% of undergraduates take out student loans, the lowest percentage of student borrowers among our top 100 list.

4. New College of Florida

5. SUNY Buffalo

Avg. debt at graduation: $16,010

In-state rank: #33

Undergrad enrollment: 19,334

Annual in-state cost: $20,333

Annual out-of-state cost: $30,953

Students who borrow: 45%

The largest school in the SUNY system, this research institution has several large merit-based scholarships for top-notch applicants and recently launched an initiative dedicated to helping students graduate on time.

The University at Buffalo's "Finish in 4" program aims to get students to do just that, avoiding the expense of an additional year. If a student takes the pledge and fulfills each of the commitments--including limiting work to 20 hours or less per week--and still doesn't graduate on time, the school will waive tuition and fees for any remaining coursework.

5. SUNY Buffalo

6. University of North Carolina at Asheville

Avg. debt at graduation: $16,252

In-state rank: #52

Undergrad enrollment: 3,814

Annual in-state cost: $14,450

Annual out-of-state cost: $28,272

Students who borrow: 53%

The University of North Carolina at Asheville keeps student borrowing to a minimum with a variety of scholarship and grant programs: An average need-based aid award of nearly $6,000 reduces the cost for in-staters to $8,521. The school attracts student scholars with its Laurels scholarships, which range from small awards to the full cost of attendance and can be renewed for all four years if students meet the requirements. It also offers an extensive list of departmental scholarships.

6. University of North Carolina at Asheville

7. San Diego State University

Avg. debt at graduation: $16,400

In-state rank: #77

Undergrad enrollment: 26,371

Annual in-state cost: $21,845

Annual out-of-state cost: $33,005

Students who borrow: 44%

This Southern California-based research institution is the third-largest university in the state and among the most selective schools on our list of 100 public colleges, with only five schools more discerning. San Diego State University offers admission to one-third of applicants; roughly 50% of the students who attend receive financial aid. The average need-based aid reduces the cost to $12,645, for in-state students and to $23,805, for out-of-staters.

7. San Diego State University

8. University of North Florida

Avg. debt at graduation: $16,572

In-state rank: #64

Undergrad enrollment: 14,363

Annual in-state cost: $15,625

Annual out-of-state cost: $30,084

Students who borrow: 43%

The University of North Florida keeps student indebtedness well below the national average, thanks to its expansive aid offerings. The school, which is located in Jacksonville, Fla., meets 89% of a student's demonstrated need–one of the highest percentages on our list–and provides almost $6,000, on average, in need-based financial aid. The university also has one of the lowest percentages of students who borrow (43%) of our top 100.

8. University of North Florida

9. University of Texas at Dallas

Avg. debt at graduation: $16,813

In-state rank: #60

Undergrad enrollment: 11,760

Annual in-state cost: $21,842

Annual out-of-state cost: $39,516

Students who borrow: 36%

While colleges look to ease the pain of tuition increases, the University of Texas at Dallas, located about 20 minutes outside of downtown Dallas in Richardson, Tex., has already extended a promise to students.

The school's Guaranteed Tuition Plan locks in a student's tuition rate for four years. Under the plan, in-state students are also permitted to take classes beyond the traditional 15 credit hours at no additional cost.

Nearly half of UT Dallas students receive financial aid packages of some type: Need-based aid averages about $8,000 and is distributed to 35% of undergraduates. Non-need-based aid averages $8,600.

9. University of Texas at Dallas

10. California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

Avg. debt at graduation: $16,815

In-state rank: #89

Undergrad enrollment: 19,399

Annual in-state cost: $19,738

Annual out-of-state cost: $30,898

Students who borrow: 36%

One of seven polytechnic universities in the country, Cal Poly Pomona is known for its learn-by-doing approach, which uses student enterprise programs such as the school's Farm Store to provide hands-on experience. The school awards generous financial aid packages to a large portion of the student body: More than half of undergraduates receive need-based aid, and the average package comes to $9,646.

The school's 1,438-acre campus is located about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, on what was once the ranch of W.K. Kellogg, of breakfast cereal fame.

10. California State Polytechnic University, Pomona

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