Lawrence receives poor grade in report ranking student debt burdens across the country

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I’m not sure who is more excited about Sunday’s University of Kansas Commencement, the graduates or the many financial services firms that soon will start collecting on student debt.

Whatever the case, excitement will be high in Lawrence because the community has a lot of graduates and a lot of student debt.

A new report from the financial services firm WalletHub found that Lawrence might be the capital of student debt in Kansas. Student debt balances in Lawrence are the second-highest in the state, trailing only the attorney and physician-heavy town of Leawood. But unlike Leawood, the report found that the amount of student debt a person has in Lawrence does not compare favorably to the average wage that a college graduate receives in Lawrence. Lawrence had the worst such ratio of any city in the state.

Lawrence residents had a median average of $25,004 worth of student debt. Leawood residents had median student debt levels that were $2,058 higher than that. But the bigger difference shows up on the paychecks of the residents. The median earnings for a Lawrence resident with a bachelor’s degree was $51,451. In Leawood, that median was $91,535.

In other words, about $2,000 difference in debt and about $40,000 difference in pay. I fully expect to see a train of UHaul trucks driving to Leawood immediately after Sunday’s commencement ceremonies. That’s obviously the key to post-graduate success.

Well, maybe there is more to it than that. This report really is a measure of which communities do a good job of attracting higher-paid professionals. It also may measure the inverse: which communities retain a lot of lower-paid professionals. The average age of a community probably plays into these rankings a lot. When you are young, your debt levels are still high, but you haven’t yet advanced enough in your career to be making the really big bucks.

Given that, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Lawrence and Manhattan scored the worst among Kansas communities in this study. For good measure, Pittsburg, another college town, fared third worst.

But, don’t worry, we have rankings for lots of Kansas communities. WalletHub, which is involved in the credit card business, has lots of data on student loan debt. The debt and the earnings numbers are self-explanatory. The percentile ranks communities based on the ratio debt to earnings. The lower the percentile number, the more burdensome student debt supposedly is in that community. Lawrence ranked in the sixth percentile, meaning there are only a few dozen communities in the country that supposedly have more burdensome student debt situations.

• Lawrence: $25,004 in debt; $51,451 in earnings; sixth percentile

• Manhattan: $23,575 in debt; $50,941 in earnings; ninth percentile

• Pittsburg: $20,403 in debt; $45,484 in earnings; 11th percentile

• Derby: $24,026 in debt; $64,433 in earnings; 31st percentile

• Topeka: $19,085 in debt; $54,301 in earnings; 39th percentile

• Leavenworth: $18,634 in debt; $52,844 in earnings; 39th percentile

• Liberal: $17,525 in debt; $50,156 in earnings; 40th percentile

• Emporia: $16,306 in debt; $47,274 in earnings; 42nd percentile

• Wichita: $19,007 in debt; $56,389 in earnings; 46th percentile

• Kansas City, Kan.: $17,545 in debt; $51,870 in earnings; 46th percentile

• Shawnee: $23,088 in debt; $69,617 in earnings; 49th percentile

• Salina: $17,512 in debt; $53,197 in earnings; 50th percentile

• Overland Park: $23,304 in debt; $71,936 in earnings; 52nd percentile

• Garden City: $16,714 in debt; $48,750 in earnings; 53rd percentile

• Leawood: $27,062 in debt; $91,535 in earnings; 66th percentile

• Lenexa: $21,550 in debt; $70,223 in earnings; 61st percentile

• Olathe: $21,740 in debt; $72,133 in earnings; 64th percentile

• Junction City: $13,635 in debt; $46,189 in earnings; 66th percentile

• Hutchinson: $14,350 in debt; $51,164 in earnings; 75th percentile

• Dodge City: $14,178 in debt; $51,817 in earnings; 77th percentile

As I mentioned earlier, the average age in a community impacts this ranking a lot, I suspect. So I wouldn’t make a big deal out of Lawrence being tops on the list in Kansas. Lawrence is a much younger community than most of the cities on this list.

But I did pick a few other major university communities in the region to see how Lawrence compares.

• Iowa City: $26,266 in debt; $48,408 in earnings; third percentile

• Stillwater, Okla.: $20,412 in debt; $47,571 in earnings; 14th percentile

• Columbia, Mo.: $22,758 in debt; $53,741 in earnings; 15th percentile

• Fayetteville, Ark.: $21,274 in debt; $51,359 in earnings; 17th percentile

• Boulder, Colo.: $23,646 in debt; $57,652 in earnings; 18th percentile

• Norman, Okla.: $20,809 in debt; $53,330 in earnings; 24th percentile

• Lincoln, Neb.: $19,719 in debt; $53,861 in earnings; 33rd percentile

• Ames, Iowa: $19,050 in debt; $52,759 in earnings; 35th percentile

That list may not make Lawrence nor Manhattan feel very good. Only Iowa City ranked worse than either Kansas community. Yes, every community on the list ranked below average (the 50th percentile is average.) It does seem logical that a college community should expect to be below average in such a ranking. However, to be as low as Lawrence and Manhattan might be out of the ordinary.

Why would that be the case for Lawrence? I’ve seen other reports that suggest Lawrence’s population is really young, even by college-town standards. Plus, how well is Lawrence doing in attracting families — which often have higher incomes — to live here? Lawrence school district enrollment numbers suggest the community is not doing great on that front.

But, if you want a definitive answer on why, I would suggest that is a future homework assignment. Hopefully, it is the kind that doesn’t require a student loan.


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