By MIKE GOLDSTEIN
With the costs of attending college still rising, student loans have simply become a fact of life for most young people. Americans as a whole owe more than $1.3 trillion in student loans, and many young people say paying back student loans is their No. 1 financial challenge.
But it's not a challenge all young Americans face equally. Depending on what kind of school they go to, what kind of resources their parents have and where they live, young Americans' student loan burden can range from minimal to overwhelming.
To dig into those differences, we looked for the cities where Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 had the most and least student loan debt. For this study, we looked at people who had at least one student loan on their credit report.
Top 10 cities where young people have the most student loan debt
One thing that stands out here: A lot of the cities in the top 10 host expensive private universities. Boston is perhaps the best example of this, with Massachusetts Institute of Technology (an average annual cost of $21,816), Boston University ($34,603), Brandeis University ($29,578) and more all in the immediate area.
Pittsburgh has Carnegie Mellon University ($33,386); Durham, North Carolina, has Duke University ($28,058); and the District of Columbia has Georgetown University ($27,801) and George Washington University ($30,206), among others.
Some of these cities are also home to huge state universities, like Madison (University of Wisconsin), Minneapolis (University of Minnesota), and Atlanta (Georgia State University and Georgia Institute of Technology).
While these schools aren't usually as expensive as the private schools listed above, especially if you opt to stay in state and avoid costly out-of-state tuition fees (Georgia Tech costs $11,053 on average), a higher density of college students in these cities could mean a larger chunk of the population hasn't even started paying back their loans, making the average debt totals skew higher.
Top 10 cities where young people have the least student loan debt
By and large, these 10 cities are less likely to have the kind of ultra-expensive private universities that are represented in the top 10 for most debt. A higher population of students who are attending public schools or community colleges can certainly drive down debt totals.
But there's also the possibility that there are other reasons for the lower debt totals. Nationally, only 55 percent of people who enter college end up graduating. Those who drop out along the way often have student loan debt to pay off, though their totals will likely be lower than those who made it through four (or more) full years.
Most cities in the top 10 for least debt also happen to be in states that have the lowest graduation rates. Arizona and Alaska have 29 percent graduation rates, while Nevada and New Mexico are at 37 and 40 percent respectively.
In comparison, only one of the cities with the most student loan debt (Atlanta) is in a state that has a graduation rate below the national average.
Cities with less student loan debt also rank poorly in other measures of economic health as well, including unemployment rates. Of the 10 cities with the most student loan debt, only Atlanta and Greensboro, North Carolina, have unemployment rates equal to or greater than the national average. Seven of the 10 cities with the least student loan debt meet that criteria.
Ironically, it seems that high levels of student loan debt might just be a measure of economic health for a city as a whole. CityLab points out that areas with high student loan debt averages often have lower rates of student loan default.
The New York Times identified borrowers with smaller debt totals as more likely to default. Lower student loan debt totals could be evidence that poor economic conditions forced students to drop out before they earned a degree or to skip graduate school, both of which may lower their future earning potential.
What can you do?
Of course, even if student loan debt could be a good sign for a city or region as a whole, it's not all that great if you're the one with the huge debt burden. And the difference between Boston levels ($26,059) and Laredo levels ($10,439) is significant.
Under the standard 10-year repayment plan for federal loans, with a 4.3 percent interest rate, a loan at Boston levels would result in $268 in monthly payments, compared to just $107 for Laredo.
If you're struggling with student loan debt, you do have some options, including:
1. Changing your repayment plan.
Borrowers with federal loans have some flexibility when it comes to their repayment plans, especially if they aren't financially able to make their regular payments. Income-based repayment plans can tie your monthly payments to your income, giving you the relief necessary to stay on track and avoid defaulting on your loans.
However, be aware that if you opt for one of these plans, you may end up extending your repayment period and pay more in interest over the life of the loan.
2. Consolidating your loans.
If you have more than one federal loan you're paying off, consolidating your loans could also be an option. Consolidating won't only make your loans easier to keep track of by combining multiple payments into one, but federal consolidation plans can also offer repayment periods of up to 30 years, meaning you could potentially lower your monthly payments (though you'd also raise the amount of interest you'd pay over the lifetime of the loan).
Also, be aware that consolidating loans may result in losing some potential benefits such as loan forgiveness. Always read the fine print.
3. Deferment, forbearance or loan forgiveness.
Deferment and forbearance are two different ways you can delay payment on your student loans. In most cases, you must apply for these options and and meet the requisite qualifications.
Loan forgiveness might also be an option if you've worked in public service and made your monthly payments for 10 years or if you're on an income-based plan and have been paying for 20 to 25 years. When in doubt, check the terms of your loans.
Student loan debt is a huge national problem -- and if you have your own loans, you know how much stress they can add to an individual person's finances. On a city level, though, the results of a lot of student debt are less clear.
In fact, higher student loan debt totals could actually indicate greater regional economic health, and lower debt totals could be evidence of higher dropout rates and other local economic issues.
The data looks at the average student loan balances for Credit Karma members between the ages of 18 and 24 who have at least one open student loan, live in the 100 largest cities in the U.S. and pulled their credit report through Credit Karma in 2015.
Editorial Note: The opinions you read here come from our editorial team. While compensation may affect which companies we write about and products we review, our marketing partners don't review, approve or endorse our editorial content. Our content is accurate (to the best of our knowledge) when we initially post it, but we don't guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information provided. You can visit the company's website to get complete details about a product. See an error in an article? Use this form to report it to our editorial team. For questions about your Credit Karma account, please submit a help request to our support team.
Advertiser Disclosure: We think it's important for you to understand how we make money. It's pretty simple, actually. The offers for financial products you see on our platform come from companies who pay us. The money we make helps us give you access to free credit scores and reports and helps us create our other great tools and educational materials.
Compensation may factor into how and where products appear on our platform (and in what order). But since we generally make money when you find an offer you like and get, we try to show you offers we think are a good match for you. That's why we provide features like your Approval Odds and savings estimates.
Of course, the offers on our platform don't represent all financial products out there, but our goal is to show you as many great options as we can.