Iowa's new college grads share old problem: debt

For many students, out of pocket is out of the question

Jacqueline Campbell, Iowa State University (K. Rambo/IowaWatch)
Jacqueline Campbell, Iowa State University (K. Rambo/IowaWatch)

Some students graduating this month from an Iowa college or university face paying off debts that could near $100,000.

While other college students contend with loans that are far less — and many students have avoided college debt entirely — taking out loans remains the only option for many wanting a higher education.

“I don’t want to be in debt, but I made the decision to come to school and I think for most students, when they make that decision, it’s kind of already married to the decision to take student loans as well,” said Nick Hodges, who finished his senior year in communication studies and writing at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.

Hodges, 28, from Crawfordsville, Ind., was one of several students interviewed at eight Iowa college campuses this spring for an IowaWatch College Media journalism project.

Brady Tobin, who just finished his senior year in math education at Cornell College, said he will leave the Mount Vernon college with a family debt of nearly $100,000.

“I come from a middle-class family home and we did not have enough money to flat-out pay for my education, so we need my parents to take out some more loans in order to pay for college,” said Tobin, 22, of Erie, Colo.

Average debt for Cornell College graduates was $34,130 in 2017, the most recent year reported to the Iowa College Student Aid Commission.


Yearly tuition at Cornell College will be $43,550 for the 2019-20 academic year, nearly twice that of a non-resident student at Iowa’s three public universities.


Tuition at the University of Northern Iowa was $8,938 for Iowa residents and $19,480 for non-residents in the 2018-19 school year and nearly 70 percent of UNI graduates had debt upon graduation in 2017.

Resident undergraduate tuition at Iowa State University ranged from $7,740 to $8,237, depending on the major. Non-resident tuition at ISU ran from $22,144 and to as high as $22,678, depending on the major, for the 2018-19 year.

“I don’t have any rich family members that would help me, so that was the only option if I wanted to continue my school,” Marissa Jerinnie, 21 who finished her sophomore year at ISU, said about taking out loans she expects will leave her $30,000 to $40,000 in debt when she graduates.

Complete data for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years don’t exist yet, but students graduating from not-for-profit, four-year universities in Iowa faced an average of $30,595 in student loan debt in 2017, according to the Iowa College Aid Commission. That number is nearly as high as the median per capita income of $30,865 in Iowa in 2017, according to the Iowa Data Center.

Average debt carried by students graduating from a private, not-for-profit university in Iowa was $33,878 for the same year. The average when graduating from the University of Iowa, ISU and UNI, run by the state’s Board of Regents, was $27,313 in 2017, according to the Iowa College Aid Commission. That was a decrease from the average of $27,575 in 2016.


But the average debt for students graduating from private, not-for-profit universities has increased steadily each year from 2013 through 2017, resulting in a 7 percent total increase.

While tuition differs between private and public institutions in Iowa, the reasons for borrowing for college were the same at campuses where IowaWatch spoke with students: the cost was too high to pay out of pocket.

“I didn’t have access to that large sum of money upfront, and that was the main motivator for borrowing the amount of money per semester,” said Madelyn Orton, 21, of West Point, who finished her junior year in English and communications at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids.

Orton said she spent money from loans only on books and tuition. Still, Orton said she will have an estimated $25,000 in debt upon graduation.


Jerinnie, the ISU student from Minneapolis, grew up in a single-parent household, she said, She said ISU was one of her top choices when picking a college, but paying out-of-state tuition has become so burdensome she is transferring to a school in her home state of Minnesota.

“I know if I did go to a community college or school in Minnesota, I knew I wouldn’t be in as much debt as I am right now,” Jerinnie said. “But, I don’t regret it (going to ISU) because I also did want to get away from home to just kind of be on my own and so it did teach me a lot.”

While the average debt upon graduation from ISU was lower than the average at private schools in Iowa, the number still sat at $27,643 as of 2017.


An IowaWatch survey of ISU students conducted with the Iowa State Daily student newspaper showed anecdotally that seven of every 10 students among the 136 responding had debt related to being in college.

Peyton Gries, 23, of Cedar Rapids, who graduated this month in enterprise leadership at the UI, said she has $42,300 in student loan debt.

Her original major, human physiology, was demanding so she put off getting a job her freshman and sophomore years to focus on school, she said. Gries worked two jobs after changing her major, which has helped. However, “I wish that I’d been more adamant about getting a job freshman and sophomore year,” she said.

Average debt for graduating seniors was $28,405 at the U in 2017. In-state tuition there was $9,492 for the 2018-19 academic year, and $31,458 for out-of-state tuition.

Help from home, college grants, savings and scholarships are key to keeping college debt down.

Joshua Cole-Brodnax, 22, from Rock Island, Ill., graduated this month with what he described as little debt and majors in English and criminal justice from Mount Mercy University.

“I don’t owe anyone any huge massive amounts of money, all my bills have been paid on time. I have been pretty blessed to have everything paid off the way I need it to,” Cole-Brodnax said.


Kelsey Ryder, assistant director of financial literacy and counseling at the UI, said the university takes several steps to explain how loans work. Ryder said she thinks some students don’t have a full grasp on the implications of borrowing for education.


“They can reduce the loan if they want, so our students definitely should have an understanding of what they’re borrowing every year, through those steps,” she said.

Ryder also said the UI requires students to complete loan counseling before they can borrow through private loans.

Pamela Perry, director of financial planning and assistance at Cornell College for more than 20 years, said she tells students and families to pursue outside funding for college.

The cost of attending Cornell and other private schools increases because of necessary upgrades and higher salaries and higher health care costs at the institutions, Perry said.

“With face-lifts to all the buildings and people wanting nicer athletic facilities and residence halls, all of those things cost money for colleges to be able to provide to students and I think colleges feel the need to do that to stay competitive,” Perry said.

Sam Riley, 21, of St. Ansgar, a junior in public relations and political science at Coe College in the just-ended school year, said he will owe more than $15,000 in loans upon graduation.

“I didn’t borrow for books or anything; it’s all gone toward tuition and also room and board,” Riley said.

Room and board was a significant factor students noted for the need to borrow money.

Nolan Boggess, 22, of Urbandale, graduated in theater at Grinnell College with $57,000 in debt. He borrowed $17,000 in his first year and about $10,000 went to room and board. Boggess moved and signed on for a less-expensive meal plan as a second-year student, but still needed to borrow.


While loans have been helpful to students completing their degrees, the catch is, of course, loans have to be paid back.

“You know I think that college debt is a growing problem, it’s a lot of responsibility for our generation to put on their shoulders,” said Mason Flynn, who turns 23 in May, and a St. Ambrose University student. Flynn, from Dubuque, is majoring in sales.

“So many our age, a lot of people don’t have a big enough grasp to think long-term, 10, 20, 30 years down the road when you have a lot of cash in your hand,” Flynn said.


Jacqueline Campbell, 37, from Clear Lake, received her undergraduate degree in genetics and zoology, and a master’s degree in genetics, from ISU. She said she wanted to live the full college experience — a decision that cost her thousands of dollars in the long run.

Campbell used student loans to live in Fredrickson Court, one of the most expensive on-campus housing options, and engaged in pricey social activities.

“People said, ‘Let’s go on this cool weekend trip,’ I spend the extra money,” she said. “So, I did those things. I did exactly what the financial adviser in high school said ‘don’t do.’”

Campbell said she also used surplus money from loans when personal expenses became necessary.

She received the cautionary advice in high school, but ISU financial aid advisers and loan officers were willing to loan her money regardless of the need, she said.

The expectation was to borrow because few can afford to pay tuition exclusively out of pocket or entirely with grants and scholarships, she said.

Campbell said it wasn’t until she began attending workshops on paying off debt provided by her church and planning carefully with her husband that she made significant progress.


It took her several years and sacrifice to pay back the more than $90,000 she borrowed as a student, she said. She finished paying off her loans in early this year.

“I’m trying to, right now, save up a little money to have a ‘I paid off my student loan debt’ party, because this is huge,” Campbell said.

“Ninety-thousand dollars is off my back.”

The following student journalists contributed to this report: Lauren Wade and Molly Hunter, University of Iowa; Matthew McDermott, Cornell College; Lily Bohlke, Grinnell College; Omar Alcorta, Guy Tannenbaum, Cooper Maahs, Allyssa Ertz, Iran Carlos, Tyler Brunner, Tanner Frost, Job Saunders, all of Buena Vista University; Logan Schroeder, Mount Mercy University; Claudia Chiappa and Antonio Perez, Coe College; and Oliden Herrera, St. Ambrose University.

This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch, a nonprofit, news website that collaborates with news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting. Read more at

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.