States with the most and least student debt

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November 4, 2020
Michael Barera // Wikimedia Commons

States with the most and least student debt

Thirty years ago, a high school graduate who wanted to attend college or university was looking at an average tuition of $15,160 for a private, nonprofit school and only $3,190 for public universities. As of 2020, that number is closer to $35,087 for private colleges and $9,687 for public schools. Once the cost of books, room and board, and other fees are added in, paying for college with a part-time or summer job is increasingly becoming a thing of the past.

Today’s students are instead turning to loans, leading to a widespread debt crisis. Americans currently owe a collective $1.56 trillion in student loans, changing the shape and trajectory of the U.S. economy. Instead of buying a car or a house, millenials are focused on finding a job that will allow them to make loan payments without defaulting.

Some states are taking steps to help: States are adopting a Student Borrower Bill of Rights and offering a variety of loan repayment programs for qualified graduates. In New York in 2017, for example, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a program that would provide free tuition at public colleges to residents whose families make less than $125,000 a year. A more recent change across the country in 2020: Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the first student loan payments for recent graduates are deferred from November 2020 until January 2021.

But not all states need the same assistance, so Stacker looked at WalletHub data from 2020 to determine where student debt is hitting the nation the hardest. WalletHub used 11 metrics to rank each state’s student loan indebtedness, and grant and student work options. They kept these two major dimensions separate, but used them to come up with a state’s overall ranking, where a higher ranking indicates higher student debt.

Read on to see where your state falls on the list.

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Jaren Wilkey // Wikimedia Commons

#51. Utah

- Total score: 15.67
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 51
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 25

Utah’s students have the lowest debt in the country. Graduates owe only $16,633 on average, according to the results of a 2020 study from LendEDU, a website that compares loans. That is nearly $4,000 less than New Mexico, the next closest state. Only 32% of Utah’s students have debt. One reason: The state has some of the country’s lowest tuition at public universities and colleges.

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Vreed // Wikimedia Commons

#50. Hawaii

- Total score: 24.21
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 50
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 36

The 10 campuses of the University of Hawaii are affordable, with in-state tuition at the three four-year schools below the national average. The state has programs to keep costs down: the Hawaiʻi Promise scholarship program for community college students, for example, and the Hawaii State Loan Repayment Program, which provides grants to health care professionals who fill geographic shortages.

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Michael Camilleri // Flickr

#49. California

- Total score: 26.83
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 49
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 31

In September 2020, California’s governor signed the Student Borrower Bill of Rights into law. It is the first state to offer consumer protection for those with student loans. The law helps students participate in loan repayment and forgiveness programs. The California State Loan Repayment Program offers programs to doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists, and other health care providers who will practice in areas where they are needed.

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Thecoldmidwest // Wikimedia Commons

#48. Wyoming

- Total score: 30.36
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 46
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 35

Wyoming’s Hathaway Scholarship, created in 2005 with a $400 million permanent endowment, pays for qualified high school graduates to attend the University of Wyoming or any of the state’s seven community colleges. The Wyoming Healthcare Professional Loan Repayment Program repays health professionals’ educational loans if they practice in an underserved area for at least three years.

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Joe Mabel // Wikimedia Commons

#47. Washington

- Total score: 30.67
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 47
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 33

The Student Loan Survival Guide, published by the Washington attorney general’s office, offers links to resources for every step of the process, for every high school student considering college loans, and former college students who struggled with the cost of school.

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Daderot // Wikimedia Commons

#46. District of Columbia

- Total score: 31.21
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 44
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 30

The District of Columbia’s ombudsman and its Department of Insurance, Securities, and Banking help students to minimize their debt. The district’s attorney general’s office has compiled a web page of student loan repayment resources.

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Jackson Myers // Flickr

#45. Florida

- Total score: 33.28
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 45
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 11

Florida’s students were accumulating student debt at a faster rate than any other state, a 2019 study found. The state requires schools to keep students informed about the amount they owe. The state passed a law in 2020 that protects professional licenses even if a graduate falls behind on student loan payments.

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Ken Lund // Wikimedia Commons

#44. Nevada

- Total score: 33.68
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 48
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 3

Among Nevada’s residents, 49% reported student debt in 2019, but it also had the highest default rate on student loans among states, according to a 2019 study from LendEDU. Massachusetts and Vermont had the lowest rates. Nevada State College provides students with access to a financial literacy program.

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Enrico Blasutto // Wikimedia Commons

#43. Alaska

- Total score: 33.83
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 43
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 6

Alaska offers a loan repayment program for health care workers who will live and work in areas with a dearth of medial, dental and behavioral health professionals. The state is among those with the lowest proportion of students with debt, according to WalletHub.

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Wars // Wikimedia Commons

#42. Arizona

- Total score: 36.5
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 42
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 39

The student loan default rate in Arizona, 11.45%, was a percentage point above the national average, according to a 2019 LendEDU study. Although some schools in Arizona lowered their default rates from 2014 through 2016, others were still above the national average.

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Cooopersmith // Wikimedia Commons

#41. Colorado

- Total score: 38.35
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 40
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 38

Colorado’s funding for colleges and universities is more dependent on tuition than other states, 70% compared to 46.4% nationally, according to a report from The Bell Policy Center. That policy forces many students to borrow.

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Eugene Kim // Flickr

#40. New Mexico

- Total score: 38.36
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 41
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 27

For students at risk of defaulting on loans, New Mexico offers student loan forgiveness and consolidation of debt. Doctors and nurses who help address the health care shortage in New Mexico can qualify for no-interest loans and other benefits.

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Aaron Josephson // Wikimedia Commons

#39. Virginia

- Total score: 39.45
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 34
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 44

Among Virginia’s graduates, 57% had student loan debt, according to a 2019 report from the nonprofit The Institute for College Access and Success. Those who have a Federal Family Education Loan, Perkins loans, or privately held student loans, and are struggling with their payments because of the coronavirus pandemic, are eligible for waived late fees and other relief.

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Don Hankins // Flickr

#38. Oregon

- Total score: 40.57
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 39
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 21

Student borrowers in Oregon are defaulting on their loans at a rate of 11.5%, higher than the national average of 10.1%, according to a 2019 LendEDU study. Some community colleges had default rates of more than 25%.

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Caroline Culler // Wikimedia Commons

#37. North Carolina

- Total score: 41.01
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 38
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 20

In North Carolina, more than 60% of students who graduate have debt. Though its schools have relatively low tuition, the state reduced funding for public schools by 18.6% from 2008 to 2018.

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Nightryder84 // Wikimedia Commons

#36. Tennessee

- Total score: 41.13
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 37
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 23

In Tennessee, defaulting on a student loan can mean losing a professional license. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren introduced bipartisan legislation in the Senate to protect such practices. Reps. Donna Shalala, Democrat from Florida, and Mark Walker, Republican of North Carolina, introduced a companion bill in the House.

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Bgervais // Wikimedia Commons

#35. Maryland

- Total score: 41.39
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 31
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 47

Maryland is awarding nearly $9 million in tax credits to residents overwhelmed by student loan debt, including 6,331 residents who attended in-state schools, who will each get $1,000 through the Student Loan Debt Relief Tax Credit, and 3,269 who attended out-of-state schools, who will receive $813 each in tax credits. Maryland students owe an average of $32,165.

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InSapphoWeTrust // Flickr

#34. New York

- Total score: 43.07
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 28
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 40

College graduates of an approved New York State college or university who agree to operate a farm in the state full time for five years can obtain loan forgiveness under a young farmers program. New York also paused collection of student debt referred for collection to the state attorney general’s office in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

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Louisiana Travel // Flickr

#33. Louisiana

- Total score: 43.15
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 36
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 5

In 2018, Louisiana reported that more than half of Louisiana’s high school graduates were eligible for state scholarships for college. State funding for higher education dropped 40% between 2008 and 2018.

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Sage Ross // Flickr

#32. Oklahoma

- Total score: 43.24
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 35
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 10

Oklahoma offers loan forgiveness to physicians, dentists and other health professionals who agree to serve in specific communities in the state. It is among the states with the highest percentage of student loans that are past due or in default, according to WalletHub.

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Brandonrush // Wikimedia Commons

#31. Arkansas

- Total score: 43.54
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 33
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 17

Six years after Arkansas began a default management program, students’ default rates fell every year, data released in 2019 shows. Arkansas’ default rate dropped from 19% in 2013 to 10.4% in 2019. The national rate was 10.1%. Arkansas is among the states with the smallest percentage of student loan borrowers who are 50 or older, according to WalletHub.

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Jalnet2 // Wikimedia Commons

#30. Maine

- Total score: 43.69
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 22
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 51

Maine college graduates owed, on average, more than $32,600 in student loans, the eighth-highest amount in the United States. It offers student debt relief to graduates who live and work in the state under the Educational Opportunity Tax Credit.

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Apstrinka // Wikimedia Commons

#29. Idaho

- Total score: 44.13
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 32
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 22

Idaho provides loan forgiveness programs for those working in areas short on health professionals. They include physicians, clinicians, and nurses in rural and underserved areas. Idaho students owe, on average, $26,675.

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MatthewUND // Wikimedia Commons

#28. North Dakota

- Total score: 44.48
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 25
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 41

Veterinarians can qualify for loan forgiveness in North Dakota if they will serve in high need areas. Three are chosen each year, with the goal of attracting new veterinarians for animals raised for meat.

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Hanyou23 // Wikimedia Commons

#27. Nebraska

- Total score: 44.74
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 29
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 26

The average student debt for graduates since 2016 is $25,501. Primary care doctors, dentists and other medical professionals are eligible for loan repayment awards if they practice in areas where there are shortages.

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Adam Procter // Flickr

#26. Missouri

- Total score: 44.9
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 24
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 42

In Missouri, 58% of graduates had student loan debt in 2017, and they owed an average of $28,650. The state offers student loan forgiveness to some employees of government agencies or nonprofit organizations.

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Jitze Couperus // Flickr

#25. Montana

- Total score: 45.7
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 27
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 24

In Montana, 57% of students had loans when they left school, owing an average of $28,032. Over the past 10 years, the number of those with debt has dropped 10.65%.

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Larry D. Moore // Wikimedia Commons

#24. Texas

- Total score: 45.78
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 30
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 15

A 2019 study by Southern Methodist University found that Black and Hispanic students in Texas borrow on average more than white students: $7,124 more for Black students and $453 for Hispanic students. Asian students meanwhile borrow $3,155 less.

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Ibrahim Old // Wikimedia Commons

#23. Illinois

- Total score: 47.05
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 21
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 34

College loans in Illinois can be refinanced at low interest rates by the Illinois Treasurer’s Office under the Illinois Student Loan Investment Act passed in 2019. More than 2 million residents of Illinois, 17% of the population, have student loan debt of, on average, $29,855.

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John Phelan // Wikimedia Commons

#22. Massachusetts

- Total score: 47.71
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 17
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 49

Massachusetts is a state that revokes professional licenses for unpaid student debt. A bill introduced in its legislature in 2019 would prohibit the practice. The state also is considering a Student Loan Bill of Rights.

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Daniel Mayer // Wikimedia Commons

#21. Georgia

- Total score: 48.68
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 23
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 13

Among the class of 2018, 69% had student loans. The average debt among the graduates was $29,800. In 2019, billionaire tech investor Robert Smith agreed to pay the student loans of the graduating class of Morehouse College, the historically Black college in Atlanta. He later paid off the debt of the students’ parents too, with a total donation of $34 million to the Morehouse College Student Success Program.

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Deutschlandreform // Wikimedia Commons

#20. Alabama

- Total score: 48.71
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 26
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 4

Alabama ranks in the top states for rising student debt over five years, according to an Experian analysis in 2019. Average debt is $35,674, up 30.9%. Another study from LendEDU found student loan debt among graduates at the University of Alabama at Birmingham fell in 2018: $31,129 on average, down 12.02% from 2017. Private school debt also was less, $21,326 on average, a 3.33% drop from 2017.

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Dfscgt21 // Wikimedia Commons

#19. South Carolina

- Total score: 49.72
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 20
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 12

Student debt increased faster in South Carolina than in any other state over the past decade, according to a 2019 report for Experian. A WalletHub study in 2019 found that state ranked fourth for debt as a percentage of income.

 

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Ron Cogswell // Flickr

#18. Wisconsin

- Total score: 50.36
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 19
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 18

Wisconsin’s governor has created a task force to look for ways to reduce student debt in the state. The loans disproportionately affect low-income and first-generation college students, students of color, women, and veterans, according to the governor. Wisconsin’s average debt for the class of 2019 was $30,600.

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The University of Vermont // Flickr

#17. Vermont

- Total score: 50.66
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 13
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 48

Vermont has the highest number of student loan borrowers who are 50 or older, according to a 2019 WalletHub study. Student loan debt in the state is $31,432 on average, compared to $28,565 for the country.

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Tom Ipri // Flickr

#16. Kentucky

- Total score: 51.2
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 18
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 9

In 2020, Kentucky is second in the country, with a delinquency rate on student loans of 15.75%, according to Student Loan Hero, a subsidiary of LendingTree. Kentucky has a loan repayment program for health care professionals who work in rural and underserved areas.

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Daderot // Wikimedia Commons

#15. Connecticut

- Total score: 51.8
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 11
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 43

Graduates in the state faced the highest student loan debt in the country last year, according to LendEDU. Connecticut’s debt averaged $38,776. In April 2020, the governor announced that in collaboration with other states, Connecticut had reached an agreement for relief for some privately held student loans.

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Lacwal12 // Wikimedia Commons

#14. New Jersey

- Total score: 52.44
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 15
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 28

New Jersey announced in April 2020 that some residents with privately held loans will be eligible for relief: payments postponed for at least 90 days, negative credit reporting suspended, late fees waived, and other help.

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IT Communications Office // Flickr

#13. Indiana

- Total score: 52.53
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 14
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 29

Indiana provides student loan relief for lawyers working in legal aid through its Richard M. Givan Loan Repayment Assistance program. The Hon. J. Terrence and Peggy Cody Loan Repayment Assistance also assists those working in child services. Legal scholarships are available.

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Nightryder84 // Wikimedia Commons

#12. Kansas

- Total score: 52.94
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 16
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 19

Kansas graduates had on average $26,764 in student debt in 2018, an amount less than the national average of $29,200. The state offers loan repayments to students who will live in rural areas, are health care professionals, and are primary care and psychiatry residents.

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Artstuffmatters // Wikimedia Commons

#11. Delaware

- Total score: 53.79
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 10
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 32

Average debt for Delaware graduates grew by 77% between 2008 and 2016, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. The average debt was the fifth highest in the country, but at the same time, Delaware’s number of out-of-state students also was above average.

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Tnricci // Wikimedia Commons

#10. Rhode Island

- Total score: 54.89
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 7
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 50

The Rhode Island Student Loan Authority offers low-cost student loans, refinancing choices, and free tools to find internships and scholarships. In 2019, it enacted a Student Loan Bill of Rights to make sure borrowers are treated fairly. In all, more than 130,000 Rhode Island residents owe $4.5 billion in student loan debt.

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AndrewHorne // Wikimedia Commons

#9. Michigan

- Total score: 55.19
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 12
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 8

Michigan places fifth in student loan debt as a percentage of income, according to a 2019 WalletHub study. The state offers scholarships or loan forgiveness programs for teachers, nurses, doctors, dentists, and other health care professionals.

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Michael Barera // Wikimedia Commons

#8. Ohio

- Total score: 58.67
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 8
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 14

Ohio offers a variety of repayment programs for doctors, dentists, and other health care providers, including the Ohio Department of Health State Loan Repayment Program, the Ohio Physician Loan Repayment Program, the Ohio Dentist and Dental Hygienist Loan Repayment Program, and the Nurse Education Assistance Loan Program.

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Adam Jones Ph.D. // Wikicommons

#7. Mississippi

- Total score: 59.56
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 9
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 2

Mississippi offers forgivable loans for nurses and teachers in undergraduate programs and for counselors, school administrators, dyslexia therapists, and speech pathologists in graduate programs.

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August Schwerdfeger // Flickr

#6. Minnesota

- Total score: 60.46
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 3
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 45

Minnesota offers a range of loan forgiveness programs for health care technicians, dentists, rural mental health professionals, nurses, pharmacists, physicians, and veterinarians. Minnesota’s graduates had a median debt of $25,500 in 2017.

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Tony Webster // Flickr

#5. Iowa

- Total score: 61.01
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 6
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 16

Iowa has a number of student loan forgiveness programs, for teachers, nurses, doctors, physician assistants, and other health care providers. Iowa students averaged $29,111 in loan debt.

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Millyard800 // Wikimedia Commons

#4. New Hampshire

- Total score: 63.24
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 2
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 37

New Hampshire offers student loan forgiveness to primary care doctors, dentists and other health care providers, with the goal of drawing them to underserved or low-income areas. It also offers help to lawyers working for nonprofit organizations.

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Swimmerguy269 // Wikimedia Commons

#3. West Virginia

- Total score: 63.41
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 5
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 1

West Virginia recruits medical professionals to rural areas through student loan forgiveness. It looks for doctors, nurses, midwives, physician assistants, pharmacists, dentists and other providers. In 2018, students in West Virginia had an average of $30,014 of debt.

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shidairyproduct // Flickr

#2. Pennsylvania

- Total score: 64.59
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 4
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 7

Pennsylvania’s lawmakers are considering a Student Borrowers’ Bill of Rights.

The state has some of the highest debt in the country. It was ranked #3 in a study by LendEDU, with borrowers averaging $38,521 of debt in 2019.

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Jacob Boomsma // Shutterstock

#1. South Dakota

- Total score: 66.17
- Student loan indebtedness rank: 1
- Grant and student work opportunities rank: 46

South Dakota offers some teachers student loan forgiveness while the Dakota Corps Scholarship aims to help students in the state. South Dakota graduates, 74% of whom have student loan debt, owe on average more than $30,000.

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