If you're pursuing higher education in the United States, you'll likely need to take out a student loan to afford it. This is often the case regardless of where in the country you're enrolled. However, student loan debt does vary by state, so students seeking the same kind of degree may owe more or less than their peers in other regions. But wherever you live, most states have student loan forgiveness programs that may offer relief for graduates struggling to pay off their debt.

Key Takeaways

  • According to the Institute for College Access & Success, 62% of college graduates from four-year public and private nonprofit colleges had student loan debt in 2019, with this group owing $28,950 on average.
  • At $39,410, borrowers in New Hampshire had the highest average student debt burden. Conversely, at $17,935, Utah's graduates owed the least in student debt on average, and it was the only state with a figure below $20,000.
  • At $64,354, the District of Columbia had the highest total on-campus cost of attendance in 2019.
  • At $53,853, Massachusetts was the state with the highest total cost of attendance and the second highest overall, while the lowest was Wyoming's at $16,275.
  • Minnesota has 15 student loan forgiveness programs, the most of any single state.
  • North Dakota is the only state that does not have its own dedicated student loan forgiveness program.

Understanding Student Loan Debt Forgiveness

Student debt is what's owed when a borrower takes out either a federal or private loan to cover the costs of higher education, which can include—among other things—tuition, textbooks, other school supplies, and basic living expenses. As of January 2021, Americans collectively owed $1.7 trillion in student loan debt. To put that number in context, that's more than the gross domestic product (GDP) of nearly any country in the world. Even when accounting for potential scholarships or parental financial assistance, most people will likely still need a loan. Additionally, the cost of education has risen over time, meaning even larger sums may be required in the future.

Student debt is a reality for over 44 million Americans, and there are myriad reasons why someone would be unable to repay their loans. Delinquency in repayments can eventually lead to a loan going into default, both of which have long-lasting impacts on a borrower's credit score and credit report. And even if someone is able to keep up with their loan payments, this expense can make it harder to save for bigger purchases or even an emergency fund.

Fortunately, there are programs available that offer student loan forgiveness to graduates struggling to manage their debt burdens. In addition to the student loan forgiveness options provided by the federal government—which are available to anyone who meets the criteria regardless of their location within the U.S.—individual state governments may also have their own debt cancellation programs. Below is our analysis of how student loan balances and forgiveness programs differed by state in 2019.

Student Loan Debt by State

According to the Institute for College Access & Success, 62% of college graduates from four-year public and private nonprofit colleges had student loan debt in 2019, with each graduate owing $28,950 on average. This represents a decrease of 3% from the year prior, though it amounts to a less than 1% decline from the $29,200 average owed for the same period

At $39,410, borrowers in New Hampshire had the highest average student debt burden. Conversely, at $17,935, Utah's graduates owed the least in student debt on average, and it was the only state with a figure below $20,000.

In addition to size of debt, loan burden is also measured by the percentage of students who carry debt. The same report found that for the 2018–19 academic year, 74% of graduates in New Hampshire had student loan debt, the highest percentage in the U.S. Likewise, at 40%, Utah had the lowest percentage of graduates with student loan debt for this same period.

Interestingly, at 40% of total debt, New Hampshire tied with Delaware for the second-highest rate of private student loan utilization, with Rhode Island's just 2% higher. This is despite the fact that 59% of borrowers in both Rhode Island and Delaware had student loan debt—15% fewer than the Granite State. Though Utah did have the lowest rate of nonfederal debt utilization, it was tied with New Mexico at 9%, even though the latter state had a 5% higher rate of graduates who owed student loans.

Although not a state, at $64,354, the District of Columbia had the highest total on-campus cost of attendance in 2019. At $53,853, Massachusetts had the highest total cost of attendance of any state and the second highest overall. The state with the lowest cost of attendance was Wyoming, at $16,275. Additionally, the District of Columbia had the highest tuition and fees at $44,723, accounting for 69.5% of the total cost of attendance. Wyoming's $4,144 in tuition and fees made up just 25.46% of its total cost of attendance.

Lastly, by subtracting the total cost of attendance of each state from its respective average student loan debt, we can see which parts of the U.S. generally offer more student aid than the minimum amount required. The excess cash can go toward off-campus living expenses or be saved for after graduation and put toward debt repayment.

Twenty-seven states have attendance costs lower than the average graduate debt. Mississippi borrowers had an average of $14,042 left after accounting for the cost of attendance. Conversely, at -$32,315 on average, students in the District of Columbia will have to pay far more for their education than their median student loan amount covers.

Student Loan Forgiveness by State

As of September 2021, 49 states and the District of Columbia offer at least one student loan forgiveness program. There are a total of 127 state-level student debt cancellation plans in the U.S. Minnesota has 15 student loan forgiveness programs—the most out of any single state. North Dakota is the only state that does not currently have its own dedicated student debt cancellation option.

Most education loan forgiveness plans are designed to help borrowers in specific professions so as to attract more students seeking the same careers to a particular state (for example, doctors, science and math teachers, lawyers, etc.). This is also why a state might offer more than one program, because it allows the state to potentially draw multiple kinds of workers into the local economy. Because economic circumstances will also differ by state, other variations are likely to exist among programs pertaining to the same careers. Below are the three areas that can differ the most from program to program.

  • Amount: Among all U.S. state programs, the amount of educational debt that can be forgiven can range from thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. Additionally, some debt cancellation plans offer different amounts of debt forgiveness depending on the applicant. For instance, Florida's Nursing Student Loan Forgiveness Program (NSLFP) offers a flat rate of $4,000 per year. Conversely, the Kentucky State Loan Repayment Program (KSLRP) has three "tiers" ($20,000, $40,000, and $80,000) based on a borrower's chosen profession.
  • Eligibility: Each student loan forgiveness program has a set of criteria that borrowers must meet in order to have their debt forgiven. On a basic level, applicants typically must be a citizen of the U.S. and/or the relevant state, have outstanding educational debt, and be actively working in the required profession. The Massachusetts Loan Repayment Program (MLRP) for Health Professionals, for example, is available to a wide variety of healthcare workers, whereas Missouri's Health Professional Nursing Student Loans is, unsurprisingly, only available to nurses. Other more unique prerequisites may be required. The Delaware State Loan Repayment Program (SLRP), for example, actually requires applicants to have education loans that are currently in default, while the opposite is true for the California Dental Association (CDA) Foundation Student Loan Repayment Grant.
  • Application Process and Cycle: Unlike for federal programs, there is no standard procedure for applying to state loan forgiveness programs. For example, not all states have online application processes available on their websites. Some simply require emailing an individual involved in the program. Required information and/or documentation also varies. Additionally, there isn't a universal application cycle. The Virginia Loan Forgiveness Program (VLFP)'s Blue Cycle is open for applications until Dec. 1, whereas the Rhode Island's Wavemaker Fellowship is currently closed.

Although federal loan forgiveness options are available for U.S. citizens in any part of the country, state programs are still worth looking into, whether a borrower is a graduate or a prospective student trying to decide which school to attend. In fact, certain programs were implemented in an effort to attract more workers in highly sought-after fields within a state's communities. Iowa's Health Professional Recruitment Program (HPRP), for example, was established to increase the number of athletic trainers, occupational therapists, physicians, physician assistants, podiatrists, and physical therapists practicing in high-need communities. Although no one should plan their academic future around having to seek debt cancellation, there's no harm in students seeking higher education in these coveted fields researching which programs could serve as a backup plan should they encounter some sort of financial hardship.

Below is a list of each state student loan forgiveness program in the U.S.:

Alabama

Alaska

Arizona

Arkansas

California

Colorado

Connecticut

Delaware

District of Columbia

Florida

Georgia

Hawaii

Idaho

Illinois

Indiana

Iowa

Kansas

Kentucky

Louisiana

Maine

Maryland

Massachusetts

Michigan

Minnesota

Mississippi

Missouri

Montana

Nebraska

Nevada

New Hampshire

New Jersey

New Mexico

New York

North Carolina

Ohio

Oklahoma

Oregon

Pennsylvania

Rhode Island

South Carolina

South Dakota

Tennessee

Texas

Utah

Vermont

Virginia

Washington

West Virginia

Wisconsin

Wyoming

What Are the Consequences of Unpaid Student Loans?

Unpaid student loans are considered delinquent, and loans that remain in delinquency can eventually go into default. Both delinquencies and defaults can negatively impact a borrower's credit score and credit report.

How Long Does a Default Stay on Your Credit Report?

Private and most federal student loans that are in default will remain on a borrower's credit report and reduce their credit score for seven years from the date of the late payment.

What Is Student Loan Forgiveness?

Student loan forgiveness refers to programs that—following a successful application and meeting their criteria—a borrower is no longer required to repay some or all of their loan(s). There are education debt cancellation programs provided by both the federal as well as state governments.

The Bottom Line

The data from the Institute for College Access & Success shows that the number of graduates with student loan debt has decreased from the prior year. It would be good if this trend continues for the foreseeable future, but the continuously escalating cost of higher education makes that unlikely. Meanwhile, the current debt crisis is also causing a decline in marriage rates, small business formations, the pursuit of career ambitions, and savings rates throughout the U.S. Waiting for the problem to resolve itself isn't advisable—and certainly isn't an option for the students and graduates shouldering this debt burden.

Searches for "student loan forgiveness" and "student loan cancellation" skyrocketed in early 2021, and the ACLU has already called upon the Biden administration to cancel $50,000 per borrower. Although there are avenues available for student loan cancellation both on the federal level and in nearly every state, the public calls for change show that these programs have been insufficient to meet the needs of borrowers. Although debt forgiveness won't completely eliminate the student lending gap between states, it may at least help level the playing field between the borrowers struggling to repay their loans in some regions and the debt-free graduates in other parts of the country.