Maine college graduates are carrying among the highest student loan debt in the country, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Maine’s statewide average debt for the Class of 2009 for four-year degrees was $29,000, the third-highest in the nation. Higher than Maine were the District of Columbia ($30,033) and New Hampshire ($29,443).

States with the lowest debt averages were Washington, $19,780; and Louisiana, $19,766.

Maine’s high student debt is related to low incomes and high college costs, said Edie Irons, communications director for the Project on Student Debt in Washington, D.C.

Maine students receive less than half of the national average in state grants for college, $1,307 compared to $2,999, Irons said. “What students don’t get in grants, they have to make up in loans.”

The percentage of Maine students with financial need is higher than the national average, 66 percent versus 55 percent, which reflects Maine’s lower incomes. Low incomes lead people to borrow more, Irons said.

Compared to other states, the cost of a public university education is higher in Maine, $14,085 versus the national average of $12,967 for 2008-09, including food and housing, according to the Project on Student Debt.

One solution would be more help from the government, Irons said.

“We’re very focused on making sure there’s as much grant aid as possible,” she said. “Last Congress squeezed in the continuation of the maximum Pell grant. It’s important to keep that and add to it.”

States must hold off on budget cuts for higher education, which can result in higher student costs, Irons said.

Colleges and universities must do what they can to keep their costs in check, Irons said. Some colleges and universities have frozen wages and cut benefits.

Meanwhile, students and parents must understand the complicated ways of paying for college and get a clear picture of how much they can afford to borrow and what kind of loans they’re considering.

According to the Finance Authority of Maine, the first step for high school seniors and parents is to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form in January or February.

Help to do that is available from high school guidance offices and the Finance Authority of Maine. FAFSA will show students how much aid they are qualified to receive.

After filling out the FAFSA form, students should seek scholarships from colleges and other groups. Often, private colleges have more to give than public schools.

If a student wants to go to college, and the student and parents have no savings, FAME staffers Martha Johnston and Mary Dyer recommend:

–Limit borrowing. “The rule of thumb is your monthly student loan payment should be no more than 10 percent of your gross monthly income,” Johnston said. If a student borrows $23,000 for a four-year degree, that will mean monthly payments of about $240 for 10 years.

If you have to borrow more, you may want to consider a more affordable way, such as attending the first two years at a community college and transferring to a state college.

–Use savings from parents and the student to reduce borrowing. Saving summer job incomes can go a long way toward reducing loans, Johnston said.

–Take advantage of federal money first. Grants are always preferred, since they don’t have to be paid back, followed by federal loans. Borrow the full Stafford Loan eligibility, subsidized, followed by unsubsidized. Federal loans offer better protection and rates than private loans, which should be avoided.

–College payment plans for parents can help spread the pain over monthly installments, rather than once or twice a year.

–Live frugally in college to reduce borrowing. Live with a roommate. Live without a car. Buy used books. Eat on the cheap. Students used to live on Ramen noodles, but “that’s not how lots are living now,” Dyer said. Some finance comforts they had at home with loans, not realizing how hard it will be to pay for it later, she said.

“Live like you’re a college student in college, so you don’t have to live like a college student after you graduate,” she said.

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