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.