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Even by college-town standards, Lawrence has a lot of student debt, new report shows

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If I had as much student debt as some of the KU graduates who got their diplomas over the weekend, I wouldn’t have been able to afford gold leaf lettering for the “Hades has Frozen Over” theme on my graduation cake.

There is a new report out that shows how high student debt has become in Lawrence and other cities, and importantly, how over-leveraged the population is becoming. The folks at the financial website WalletHub partnered with TransUnion, the giant financial services data company, to show the median level of student debt for more than 2,500 cities in America.

The report found that the median amount of student debt in Lawrence is the second highest of any Big 12 community. It also found that Lawrence was the fourth-most over-leveraged Big 12 community when it comes to student debt. The report defined over-leveraged by comparing the median amount of student debt versus the community’s median income for people who hold a bachelor’s degree.

Several University of Kansas graduates decorated their hats to mark their participation in the 146th KU commencement ceremony.

Several University of Kansas graduates decorated their hats to mark their participation in the 146th KU commencement ceremony. by Mike Yoder

Here’s a look at the rankings for Big 12 cities. For comparison purposes, the percentile ranking shows where a city ranks among all 2,515 communities that were ranked. The higher the percentile, the more over-leveraged a community is.

— Stillwater, Okla.: 99th percentile; $22,807 debt vs $33,235 income

— Morgantown, W.V.: 99th percentile; $24,746 debt vs $36,219 income

— Norman, Okla.: 96th percentile; $22,097 debt vs $38,008 income

— Lawrence: 94th percentile; $22,957 debt vs $40,986 income

— Ames, Iowa: 90th percentile; $18,999 debt vs $37,235 income

— Manhattan: 88th percentile; $20,524 debt vs $40,800 income

— Lubbock, Texas: 76th percentile; $19,923 debt vs $44,898 income

— Waco, Texas: 71st percentile; $19,518 debt vs $45,588 income

— Austin, Texas: 59th percentile; $19,452 debt vs $49,364 income

— Fort Worth, Texas: 20th percentile; $15,917 debt vs $52,161 income

Notice that Lawrence had the second highest debt totals in terms of dollars, trailing only Morgantown, which is home to West Virginia University. Stillwater and Norman weren’t far behind. The median student debt in Lawrence is about 12 percent higher than it is in Manhattan.

But also notice that Lawrence’s median income ranks pretty well compared to other Big 12 communities. It was fourth among the 10 schools in the Big 12, but Lawrence had the highest median among any community that wasn’t in Texas. It was striking how much higher median incomes are in Texas. (That explains why Texans drive like they own the road. They probably really do.)

When you compare Lawrence to other Kansas communities, the picture isn’t as pretty. Lawrence has the highest median amount of student debt of any city in Kansas. That’s not too surprising. It either was going to be Lawrence or Manhattan because college communities are always going to have a greater percentage of residents with student debt than non-college communities.

Also not surprising is that Lawrence ranks No. 10 out of the 13 Kansas communities (plus KCMO) in terms of median income for holders of bachelor’s degrees. Here’s a look at the list of Kansas communities, ranked by median income.

— Shawnee: 45th percentile; $20,012 debt vs $55,262 income

— Lenexa: 22nd percentile; $17,043 debt vs $54,467 income

— Olathe: 27th percentile; $17,621 debt vs $54,433 income

— Overland Park: 55th percentile; $20,887 debt vs $54,184 income

— Kansas City, Mo.: 74th percentile; $20,673 debt vs $47,137 income

— Wichita: 58th percentile; $17,964 debt vs $45,924 income

— Topeka: 57th percentile; $16,887 debt vs $43,328 income

— Garden City: 11th percentile; $11,815 debt vs $42,373 income

— Salina: 56th percentile; $16,114 debt vs $41,678 income

— Lawrence: 94th percentile; $22,957 debt vs $40,986 income

— Hutchinson: 50th percentile; $15,249 debt vs $40,850 income

— Manhattan: 88th percentile; $20,524 debt vs $40,800 income

— Kansas City, Kan.: 77th percentile; $18,198 debt vs $40,692 income.

Obviously, most local residents would like to see Lawrence’s income number higher, but there is only so much good in worrying about it. Lawrence likely always will have a high number of recent college graduates as part of its population. They are going to be making less money than college graduates who have several years of experience. That puts downward pressure on the Lawrence’s median average, but that’s the nature of college communities.

The more interesting number might be the one we started with: Lawrence has the second highest median student debt in the Big 12 Conference. Why is that? There are a number of possibilities.

One possibility is fairly straightforward: KU’s tuition is high compared to the financial means of the students it is attracting. But another possibility to keep in mind is that Lawrence isn’t doing as good a job keeping college graduates long term as other places. These numbers could be indicative of that because the mathematics of this dictate that communities that have a lot of recent college graduates but a scarcity of mid-career college graduates are going to have higher median student debt totals. That’s because most people’s student debt totals are highest right after graduation, and then shrink by quite a bit as the years pass and their salaries grow. For Lawrence, the question is whether college graduates are passing those years and growing those salaries while living in Lawrence, or do they move before they get to that stage of life?

This report doesn’t answer that question, but it is a good one to think about. Regardless, if you are a recent graduate reading this, congratulations.

Now, go earn some money.

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