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About the Data 

In this report, the term "colleges" refers to public four-year and private nonprofit four-year institutions of higher education that grant undergraduate degrees and are located in the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, unless otherwise specified.


Data Sources

The student debt data used in Student Debt and the Class of 2008 are reported by colleges in response to a survey based on the "Common Data Set" (CDS), a shared survey instrument used by publishers of college guides. Despite the name "Common Data Set", there is no actual repository or "set" of data. Each surveyor conducts, follows up, and reviews the results of its survey independently. The student debt data used in this report are collected under CDS questions H4, H5, H4a, and H5a. Overall debt figures include both federal and private student loans taken out by graduating seniors while they attended that college. For this analysis, we licensed and used CDS data from Peterson's Undergraduate Financial Aid and Undergraduate Databases, © 2009 Peterson's, a Nelnet company. All rights reserved.

Colleges' descriptive characteristics (such as name, state, and sector), and data on in-state tuition and fees, enrollment, and number of bachelor's degrees granted are taken from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS). Colleges report these data in response to annual surveys from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the U.S. Department of Education. The percentage of Pell Grant recipients in 2007-08 is derived from U.S. Department of Education sources. These variables, along with many others, are also available on our College InSight website.


Data Limitations

As a general caveat, student debt figures are estimates which are reported voluntarily by campus officials and are not audited or reviewed by any outside entity. For a number of reasons, the college-level data reported in CDS may understate actual borrowing. Although the CDS questions ask colleges to report cumulative debt from both federal and private (non-federal) loans, colleges may not be aware of all the private loans their students carry. The CDS questions also instruct colleges to exclude transfer students who graduate from their colleges and the debt those students carried in. At the state level, these problems are compounded by the fact that not all colleges answer the debt-related questions. Therefore the state averages also likely understate actual borrowing.


What Data are Included in the State Averages?

The state averages are based on the 922 colleges that answered all four of the CDS student debt questions listed above for the class of 2008 and can be matched to data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), a set of federal surveys on higher education. These colleges represent about 46 percent of all public and nonprofit four-year colleges and about 69 percent of all 2008 bachelor's degree recipients in these sectors. Around two-thirds are nonprofit colleges, which is similar to the ratio found among all colleges in these sectors, although the share of private colleges that submitted student debt data with tuition over $20,000 is higher than the share of all private colleges with tuition over $20,000.

We weight the state averages according to the size of the graduating class (bachelor's degrees granted during the 2007-08 year) and the proportion of graduating seniors with debt at each school. When the usable cases with student debt data cover less than 30 percent of bachelor's degree recipients in the class of 2008 for that state, we excluded the state averages from the rankings and tables in this report.

The state averages and rankings in this report are not directly comparable to averages in previous years' reports due to changes in methodology and changes in which schools in each state report data each year. This year, we refined the way in which we match data from their database to the correct year and college in IPEDS. Our College InSight web site has averages for states, sectors, and other aggregate groupings of colleges, but these should be used with caution for student debt data and other information derived from CDS. The underlying cohort of colleges reporting data for a particular topic or variable may not be representative of the grouping as a whole, the list of colleges reporting data within each grouping may change from year to year, and colleges may even change sectors.

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