Lawrence is the student debt capital of Kansas and ranks high nationally too

photo by: Shutterstock Photos

Black Mortar Board Cap with Yellow Tassel Isolated on White Background.

I was not a geography major in college, but I did understand it well enough to know that KU’s decision to start its graduation ceremony at the top of a hill was an advantage to me: If I ran down it, I might beat the administrators who realized they had made a mistake.

These days, I worry what I would be trying to outrun is student debt. College was far less expensive during my college times, and student debt was less prevalent, but it is a big deal now. And a new study suggests there is no place in Kansas where it is a bigger deal than in Lawrence.

A new study by the financial services firm WalletHub found that Lawrence is the most over-leveraged city in Kansas when it comes to student debt. In other words, the average amount of student debt Lawrence residents have is out of whack with the median incomes in the community.

It’s not too surprising that Lawrence would fare worst in this category in Kansas. We are the largest college community in the state, and we’re full of young people. Young people are more likely to have large amounts of student debt because they’ve had less time to pay it off. The amount of Lawrence money that gets sent off to faraway student debt lenders may be a negative of being such a young town, but Lawrence’s young population creates some positives that offset it.

The study also shows that Lawrence is not among the very worst of over-leveraged college cities in the country. If you are looking for a positive takeaway, that would be one. The rallying cry of “at least we are not Columbia” remains intact.

But there is some troubling news in the report for Lawrence. One is that Lawrence isn’t just the the most over-leveraged city in Kansas, but rather that it holds that spot by quite a lot. The second, and perhaps more interesting, involves our incomes. The WalletHub study uses a median income measurement that I haven’t dealt with much: Median incomes for people 25 and older with at least a bachelor’s degree. This report ended up being a handy way to compare Lawrence’s income level in that category with a whole bunch of places.

While it was handy, the results were far from handsome. Of the 10 large Kansas communities I most frequently track, Lawrence came in last for income levels for graduates with a college degree. You’ll have to ponder on your own why that is. I’ve got statistics to pass along.

• Lawrence numbers: Lawrence ranked in the 92nd percentile of most over-leveraged cities, according to the WalletHub study. Being in the 99th percentile means you are among the worst 1% in the country, so Lawrence is in the worst 7%. The report looked at about 2,500 U.S. cities. WalletHub has a real advantage in putting these reports together because it has a partnership with one of the credit rating agencies, TransUnion, which gives it access to the amount of student loans that exist in each city. It then compares that amount to the median income levels for college graduates with a bachelor’s, which is a statistic compiled by the Census Bureau.

The average amount of student debt in Lawrence was $23,320, while the average earnings for a college graduate were $43,943. As I mentioned, that is worst in Kansas but better than several other major college communities. Among those faring worse: Tallahassee, Fla.; Corvallis Ore.; Oxford, Miss.; Laramie, Wyo.; Iowa City; and Columbia, Mo. All of those ranked in the 96th percentile. Chapel Hill, N.C.; Gainesville, Fla.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; and Tuscaloosa, Ala., all ranked in the 97th percentile. Bloomington, Ind., and Athens, Ga., ranked in the 99th percentile. So too did Ithaca, N.Y., which I note because it often shows up in the many lists ranking the best college towns in America. Its median earnings for a college graduate are just over $33,000. Maybe it is considered a great college town because you would need a scholarship to live there long term.

• Big 12 numbers. It is always interesting to see where we rank among our Big 12 counterparts. Lawrence isn’t last, but you can see it from there. Here’s a look:

27th percentile: Fort Worth: $18,198 debt vs. $57,358 income

55th: Austin, Texas: $21,179 debt vs. $55,605 income

78th: Manhattan: $20,233 debt vs. $45,303 income

81st: Waco, Texas: $20,500 debt vs. $44,631 income

82nd: Ames, Iowa: $19,001 debt vs. $41,084 income

82nd: Norman, Okla.: $21,209 debt vs. $45,961 income

82nd: Lubbock, Texas: $22,302 debt vs. $48,151 income

92nd: Lawrence: $23,320 debt vs. $43,943 income

98th: Stillwater, Okla: $23,448 debt vs. $37,466 income

99th: Morgantown, W. Va.: $26,267 debt vs. $40,288 income

Lawrence ranks fourth lowest on just the income measurement, behind Morgantown, Stillwater and Ames.

• Kansas debt levels: Each month I track sales tax data for 10 Kansas communities that generally have the largest economies in the state. So, I decided to use those same 10 communities for a Kansas comparison on debt levels. Here’s a look at how over-leveraged each community is, according to the WalletHub analysis:

Shawnee: 20th percentile, $18,982 in debt

Olathe: 23rd percentile, $19,294 in debt

Salina: 44th percentile, $16,224 in debt

Lenexa: 44th percentile, $21,523 in debt

Overland Park: 47th percentile, $22,320 in debt

Wichita: 59th percentile, $19,158 in debt

Topeka: 68th percentile, $19,178 in debt

Kansas City, 77th percentile, $19,669 in debt

Manhattan, 78th percentile, $20,233 in debt

Lawrence, 92nd percentile, $23,320 in debt

Lawrence had both the highest amount of debt in terms of dollars and also ranked in the worst percentile. However, in case you are wondering, there were some cities relatively nearby that did worse. They just happened to be on the other side of the state line. Grandview, Mo., a suburb of Kansas City, ranked in the 99th percentile, i.e., among the worst 1% in the country. Debt levels there were just under $28,000. (Feel free to go to a Grandview tavern and win a trivia contest with that detail. Just don’t accept an IOU on the prize money.)

• Kansas income levels: As I mentioned earlier, I find the income levels to be some of the most interesting parts of this report. So, I pulled those out and ranked them. As a reminder, these are median incomes for people 25 and older with a bachelor’s degree:

Shawnee: $62,803

Olathe: $62,267

Overland Park: $61,593

Lenexa: $60,635

Wichita: $49,082

Topeka: $46,055

Salina: $45,784

Manhattan: $45,303

Kansas City: $44,112

Lawrence: $43,943

It is no surprise that the Johnson County communities are atop that list. All of those places excel at being corporate towns. Lawrence does not excel at that, and some people here take pride in that. But these numbers are a side effect of that. However, I did think we would be ahead of Salina and Manhattan, as the economies in that part of the state are quite a bit different from here.

The figures are a reminder that many of the issues we talk about — think affordable housing, for instance — tie right back to income numbers like these.


Welcome to the new Our old commenting system has been replaced with Facebook Comments. There is no longer a separate username and password login step. If you are already signed into Facebook within your browser, you will be able to comment. If you do not have a Facebook account and do not wish to create one, you will not be able to comment on stories.