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A higher percentage of students at Sonoma State University students take out educational loans than do students at other California State University campuses — and they graduate from SSU with more than $17,000 in debt, topping most of their CSU peers, according to CSU data and a nonprofit research group.

Still, the average debt load for SSU graduates is lower than the national average of $25,250, and given the lifetime earnings advantage that comes with a college degree, it still represents a good investment, experts say.

"The students should feel good; I think they can look at these numbers and feel reassured," said Deborah Cochrane, research director for the Oakland-based Institute for College Access and Success, which advocates for affordable higher education and tracks student debt levels.

SSU students who graduated with bachelors degrees in 2010, the last year for which there is complete data, had an average loan debt of $17,251, according to the CSU Chancellor's Office. That was an 18.4 percent jump from two years earlier.

The CSU average in 2010 was $15,804.

For some, especially newer students, the debt hints at a future of bright promise.

"Right now, it's kind of exciting," said Hayden Pheneger, 18. A freshman, he said he took out $5,000 in loans for this year. "I feel like it's kind of good debt to have; it's furthering my education."

But for others, it weighs heavily.

"It's disheartening," said Cortney Sandoval, 23, a fifth-year senior who said the bulk of her debt comes from housing expenses.

Her parents have helped, she said, but she still expects to graduate this year with between $15,000 and $20,000 in debt, partly because she couldn't get into the classes she needed to graduate in four years.

"And it's disheartening knowing I have to go to graduate school after this and accumulate more," said Sandoval, who lives off-campus in Rohnert Park and is pursuing a career as a physical therapist.

Just four other CSU campuses — San Bernardino, Chico, San Francisco and Humboldt — reported higher student debt averages than SSU, where tuition and fees are $6,862 a year, the fourth-highest among in the system's 23 campuses.

CSU tuition has nearly doubled in five years, and the increases forced Matt Ealy, 27, of Santa Rosa, to increase his yearly borrowing by $2,000.

Switching majors extended his school career, too. And once he pays for a required field study program, the geology major said he will owe more than $25,000 in student loans.

"It doesn't feel good. It's going to be on my back for decades," Ealy said.

SSU is ranked the most costly in the CSU system for students living off campus, at $26,314 a year — $12,402 of that in food and housing costs.

The Institute for College Access and Success's 2011 Project on Student Debt has an even higher average loan debt than did the CSU analysis: $18,201.

The CSU arrives at its data using financial aid information and reports submitted by each of its campuses to the chancellor's office. The Institute analyzed school surveys collected by Peterson's, a publisher of college guides.

Elsewhere, though, the nonprofit's and CSU's numbers are the same; for example, both say the statewide student debt average is $18,113. Just four other states come in lower: Utah, Nevada, Hawaii and New Mexico.

So even though college tuition is climbing faster in California than elsewhere in the country, "Our students are still graduating with lower debt levels than in the rest of the nation. That's good news," said Hans Johnson, a research fellow at the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California.

Notable in the student debt portrait for SSU:

; 54 percent of its undergraduate students borrow money, compared with 42 percent of CSU students.

; 25 percent of SSU students receive federal Pell Grants available only to lower-income students. Only CalPoly has fewer.

; More SSU students are borrowing money than before. In the 2008-2009 academic year — when annual federal loan limits rose to the current level — 2,892 SSU students took out federal education loans. Of those, 1,001 took out only subsidized, lower-interest loans available to lower-income students; 697 borrowed only from the unsubsidized, higher-interest program; and 1,194 borrowed from both programs.

In the 2011-2012 year, 3,419 SSU students borrowed — an 18 percent increase in three years. That's partly because there are more students now, and partly, SSU Director of Financial Aid Susan Guttierez suggested, because tuition has risen while at the same time a slow economy has cut into disposable income.

Of SSU undergraduates who borrowed money last year, 883 took out only subsidized, low-interest loans; 604 borrowed only unsubsidized, higher-interest loans; and 1,932 borrowed from both programs.

"There's no scientific answer," Guttierez said, but it's also possible that students from wealthier backgrounds are more likely to borrow for school.

"For their families, it's not necessarily a negative thing in their eyes," she said. "They're more familiar with borrowing and repayments."

At the same time, though, said Cochrane, it may be that more of the student debt at SSU is carried by lower-income students because "students who receive Pell grants are twice as likely to take out student loans as students who don't," she said.

That alone may have the effect of reducing the number of lower-income students attending SSU, said Mark Kantrowitz, a student debt expert who publishes FinAid.org, a website about financial aid.

"There's been a decline in bachelors degree attainment by lower-income students and the primary cause has been increased sensitivity" to debt, he said.

"Imagine graduating college with more debt than your parents make in a year; that's going to have chilling effect," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.)

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