Financing college: Student debt, default rates and Pell Grants in Utah


From scholarships and grants to work-study programs and student loans, there are many ways of financing a college education. Only about half of Utah college students graduate with student loan debt (compared to seven in ten nationally), and the debt they do graduate with is much lower than the national average. Nearly 40% of USHE students receive Pell Grant support, which is based on financial need and does not need to be repaid.

Student debt

Only 52% of Utah college students graduate with debt. And the average Utah student loan debt is $22,418, substantially less than the national average of $28,400. One of the contributing factors to this large difference is tuition at Utah’s public universities is the third lowest in the nation. Utah was recently ranked “the best state for student debt,” and is one of the most cost-effective states to get a college degree.

Utah ranks high in key categories:

  • 3rd lowest tuition/fees for public four-year institutions
  • 3rd lowest student debt as a percentage of the cost of living
  • 3rd lowest unemployment rate for people ages 25-34
  • 4th in home ownership ranking among people ages 25-34
  • 4th lowest percentage of student loan borrowers ages 50+
  • Low percentage of student loan balances AND borrowers in past due or default status

Student loan default rates

Student loan default rates in the Utah System of Higher Education (USHE) are below the national average. Nationwide, the total default rate is 13.7%, compared to all USHE institutions at 9.8%. Public two-year colleges nationally have a default rate of 20.6%, compared with USHE two-year college’s 13.7%. The default rate nationally at public four-year universities is 8.9%, compared to USHE four-year institution’s 8.5%.

 % 3-year default rates, FY11 cohort, nation vs. USHE by institution type

Note on calculations: Change from two-year to three-year cohort: Effective 2014, student loan default rates are calculated by using a three-year cohort rate. This revised method of calculating reflects an increase in those rates over the previous two-year rates, as it includes an additional year in which a borrower could default. The FY11 cohort includes borrowers who entered repayment in FY11, and the percentage of those who defaulted in FY11, FY12 or FY13. 

Pell Grants

The Federal Pell Grant program provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain post-graduate students to promote access to higher education. A Pell grant, unlike a loan, does not need to be repaid.

In 2013 – 2014, over 113,000 Utah students statewide—including over 62,000 USHE students—received Pell Grants. The total dollar amount of Pell Grants was nearly $406 million, with the average grant coming in at $3,592. After sharp increases in Pell Grant volumes from 2008 – 2012, both the number of recipients and dollar amounts decreased this past year from the 2012 – 13 award year. The number of Utah Pell Grant recipients decreased 5.8%, and the dollar volume decreased 4%. Such stabilization has historically occurred as the economy recovers and employment improves.

Dollar amount of Pell Grants in Utah

# of Pell Grant recipients in Utah

Media Inquiries

Trisha Dugovic
Communications Director