Montana State University students who took out loans to get through college had an average debt last year of $27,764 — hundreds of dollars less than their state and national peers.

MSU students in Bozeman also had one of the lowest default rates in the state — 5.3%, or less than half the 11% default rate for University of Montana students.

And Bobcats were less likely than students at other colleges to take out loans — 51% at MSU, vs. 56% for all Montana schools and 57% nationally.

That’s according to recent reports from the LendEDU.com website, which analyzed student loan and default data for more than 4,000 U.S. colleges.

At MSU Bozeman, the state’s largest campus, the 5.3% default rate was the lowest of any Montana University System school, based on 2016 figures from the U.S. Department of Education.

Nationally, 10.1% of student loans were in default.

That number has been on the rise as total college loans grew to $1.6 trillion, an all-time high. Student loans are considered to be in default if payments are 270 days or about nine months late.

MSU students are doing better than average partly because of programs the Bozeman campus has initiated in recent years, said spokesman Michael Becker.

The university sends out “Know Your Debt” letters to students who borrow more than average, and offers students free financial counseling in the Strand Union Building.

President Waded Cruzado started a “Freshman 15” campaign several years ago to urge students and parents to take at least 15 class credits per semester instead of 12. It costs students nothing extra and students who take more classes can get through college faster, saving thousands of dollars on tuition and living expenses.

In the past five years the share of new MSU undergraduates taking 15 credits or more jumped from 59% to 78%, Becker said.

That may help explain why only 51% of MSU students graduated with any debt — a drop of 7.8% from the year before, according to LendEDU figures.

Despite MSU’s relatively strong results, its default numbers have been creeping up, along with those for the rest of the state. Seven years ago, just 4.1% of the Bozeman students were reported in default.

For the state of Montana, the average student loan debt was $28,039 last year, which ranked No. 22 nationally.

The average debt for U.S. students in the class of 2018 who borrowed money was $28,565. For the 57% of American students who took out loans, the average monthly loan payment was $393.

Defaulting on student loans can result in tax refunds, wages or Social Security payments being garnished and credit scores being damaged, according to LendEDU.

Six Montana schools that ranked in the bottom half for default rates statewide were private, for-profit beauty schools: Bitterroot School of Cosmetology (12.7%), Montana Academy of Salons (17.5%), Crevier’s School of Cosmetology (17.9%), Academy of Cosmetology (18.6%), Bold Beauty Academy (22.8%) and Butte Academy of Beauty Culture (26.1%).

Here are default rates (2016 data) and average loan debt (2018 data) for several Montana colleges:

MSU Bozeman (5.3%, $27,764).

UM Missoula (11%, $28,157)

Montana Tech (11.4%, $22,444)

University of Providence (7.4%, $26,723)

Carroll College (2.3%, $30,794)

Rocky Mountain College (4.8% $32,435).

Here are default rates only (debt data not available):

Salish Kootenai College (1.8%)

Flathead Valley Community College (8.5%)

UM Western (9.7%)

MSU-Billings (10.3%)

MSU-Northern (13.9%)

Great Falls College MSU (14.7%)

Helena College UM (16.1%)

Miles Community College (18%)

Dawson Community College (20.5%)

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

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