Pierce County residents hit particularly hard by student loan debt

TACOMA, Wash. -- About one in six people in Pierce County have student loan debt, the highest rate in Western Washington, a recent study shows.

Sixteen percent of all Pierce County residents have some school debt, with the average of those debts being about $14,500, according to a study from the Urban Institute. This is just above King County's rate of 15 percent, and behind only Whitman and Kittitas counties for highest in the state.

That works out to an average monthly payment of about $145. About two percent of Pierce County residents have debt in collection.

But student loan debt is not always a bad thing, said the study's co-author, Sandy Baum. Yes, students are borrowing more than they used to, in part because more people are going to college.

"Much of the increase is new populations of students," Baum said.

And college pays off. Baum said people who graduate college benefit in the long run, securing high-paying jobs. According to the Pew Research Center, Millennials with a Bachelor's degree earn nearly twice as much as those with just a high school diploma. The unemployment rate is also nearly four times as much.

The worst thing you can do? Take out loans and not finish college.

"Completing college is the biggest predictor of whether or not you can repay your debt," Baum said. "Student loan debt is two to three times higher for people who dropped out."

Though Pierce County has a higher percentage of people with debt, King County residents have a median student loan debt of around $18,400, one of the highest in the state.

Washington state fares better than the rest of the country, without 14 percent of the population facing student loans, compared to around 16 percent nationally. Baum said more people go to public schools in Washington, keeping costs low.

"The highest debt levels are in the Northeast, where there are more private colleges," Baum said. "Many students in Washington go to public universities."

More students have debt now than did 10 years ago, Baum said, but don't put too much stock in doom-and-gloom headlines. The amount of student debt has largely leveled off since the Great Recession.

For more on debt by county, visit Urban.org.