• Augusta State University, Georgia
• Berea College, Kentucky
• California State University-Bakersfield
• California State University-Sacramento
• Clarion University of Pennsylvania
• College of Saint Elizabeth, New Jersey
• College of the Ozarks, Missouri
• CUNY Hunter College, New York
• CUNY York College, New York
• Dalton State College, Georgia
• Elizabeth City State University, North Carolina
• Ferrum College, Virginia
• Lane College, Tennessee
• Mount Carmel College of Nursing, Ohio
• Pomona College, California
• Princeton University, New Jersey
• University of Houston-Clear Lake, Texas
• University of Maine at Fort Kent, Maine
• Williams College, Massachusetts
• Yale University, Connecticut
Source: The Project on Student Debt
What do Yale University, the College of the Ozarks and Dalton State College have in common?
Students at these institutions graduate with some of the lowest debt in the nation, according to a new report from the Project on Student Debt. The project is an initiative of the Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit research and policy organization that studies college affordability and availability.
The average debt for a Dalton State graduate is $6,811, compared with an average of $22,443 for Georgia's higher education students, according to the project. A semester's tuition and fees are $1,866 for in-state students at Dalton State and $5,700 for out-of-state students, according to the college's website.
Dalton State hopes to capitalize on its affordability rankings, officials said.
"We for years have said we offer a quality program at an affordable cost, but now we have the data to back that up," said Jodi S. Johnson, vice president for enrollment and student services at Dalton State.
The report lists 20 colleges and universities nationally whose students had the lowest debt for 2011. The institutions reported average student debt to be between $3,000 and $9,750, and annual tuition ranges from $900 to $41,450.
The colleges range from private nonprofit colleges with large endowments, such as Yale, that may give generous grants to low-income students, to colleges such as the College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo., where students work instead of paying tuition.
The study found that colleges, including Dalton State, enroll many low-income students who receive aid, including the Pell grant.
About 70 percent of Dalton State students receive some sort of need-based aid, Johnson said.
A high number of working students also may contribute to low student debt, she said. The last time she saw the number, about 70 percent of Dalton State students were employed either part or full time, Johnson said.
"A number of our students, particularly those in programs like nursing, are able to work through at least their third or fourth year," she said. "They may only have one or two years of loans to take out."
Though only one college in Tennessee made the low-debt list, the state as a whole has one of the lowest average student debts at $20,703.
Russ Deaton, associate executive director of fiscal policy and administration at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said that may be because financial aid programs largely have been shielded from higher education funding cuts.
"It's a policy success story -- you've got large-scale financial aid programs and affordable tuition," Deaton said.
Five colleges in Tennessee were listed as "Best Value Schools" by U.S. News & World Report, including two in the region: Lee University (No. 12 in Regional Universities) and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (No. 14 in Regional Universities).