Stanford senior Gillian Brassil said she took about $8,000 to $11,000 in loans each year she was at the school. The communications and creative writing major, who is graduating Sunday, started work on her master's in journalism while still an undergrad, a move she estimates might have helped save her and her family as much as $45,000.
"I knew from growing up that I wasn't ever going to be able to afford tuition here at Stanford," said Brassil, who describes herself as lower middle class.
A synchronized swimming athlete, she was recruited by Stanford and accepted there as well as UC Berkeley and Boston University, where she grew up. Once she did the math, she said she was surprised to find Stanford was her best choice.
"The tuition itself was much higher, but the financial aid was greater," she said.
Brassil estimates she took out about $30,000 in debt, more than the average total student debt among Stanford grads. But she said the school's financial aid options were "superb" and credited it with working with her when she needed additional help.
That might be because Stanford's endowment -- currently $26.5 billion -- allows it to be more generous than the UC and California State University systems, Cooper said. About two-thirds of the school's financial aid program is funded by the endowment, and the rest comes from donations to the university, she said.
Nevertheless, California's public universities also have some of the lowest debt burdens in the state, accounting for 22 of the 30 schools with the least debt for undergraduates. But even within the public system, there are differences.
The UC system "has more financial aid institutionally to quote-unquote take care of students compared to CSU," said Jessica Thompson, director of policy and planning at The Institute for College Access & Success, a nonprofit with offices in Oakland and Washington, D.C.
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Her organization does its own analysis of student debt and found that in 2017 Stanford students graduated with about $20,200 in debt, including private loans not covered in the Department of Education data.
Thompson said there are myriad reasons why students from different public universities have different debt burdens, including the cost of living throughout the state and how quickly students are able to graduate.
In the Bay Area, San Jose State graduates have about $1,000 less debt on average than graduates from CSU East Bay, who leave with an average of $18,400 in debt. And UC Santa Cruz graduates have almost $5,000 more in debt on average than Berkeley or UC Davis students.
Universities that typically serve more low-income students also tend to have higher average debt burdens. "We know that the schools that are doing the most heavy-lifting," Thompson said, "those are also the schools that tend to have the fewest resources per student to spend."
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