If loans allow students to earn high-quality degrees, many may be in better shape than if they never went to college.

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College debt has gotten a bad name in recent years, fueled by headline-grabbing stories about broke college graduates who owe hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans.

But not all student loans are inherently bad, the left-leaning Center for American Progress (CAP) argues in a new study. The center’s analysis shows that Washington residents appear to be getting their money’s worth when they take out student loans because they’re more likely to finish their degrees.

CAP researchers believe the link between debt and educational attainment is frequently missing from national discussions about student loans. The major issue, the center says, is whether students who borrowed money actually complete a degree.

Sixty percent of all those who default on their loans are college dropouts. Students who complete a degree, however, are more likely to pay back their loans, and “it is far better to be a bachelor’s degree graduate with $28,400 in loans — the national average in 2013 — than a dropout who owes $10,000.”

Donna Grethen / Op Art (Donna Grethen)
Donna Grethen / Op Art (Donna Grethen)

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In its study, CAP measured the relationship between debt and college completion in each state. By that measure, Washington state does pretty well — ranking 3rd among all 50 states — because it has a high number of adults holding college degrees (almost 40 percent of the adult population has at least an associate’s degree) and relatively low debt per borrower. In Washington, the average debt per adult graduate with at least an associate’s degree is $11,770.

In Louisiana, by contrast, only 26 percent of the population has at least an associate’s degree, and according to the CAP analysis, that state has one of the highest debt-per-graduate figures in the country, at $21,917 per adult graduate.

“Debt itself is not inherently bad if it allows students to earn high-quality degrees and credentials that they could not otherwise afford,” CAP concludes. “It is only when loan debt is viewed through the lens of college completion that the bigger picture of where it is truly worrying emerges.”