(USA TODAY) National student loan debt is nearing the trillion dollar mark - $986 billion as of March 2013 - and several universities are taking action to alleviate loan burdens on graduates.
The University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, an institution ranked second on The Princeton Review's 2013 best value colleges list, has several initiatives in place to keeping loan debt to a minimum.
"Carolina students, on average, are not burdened by a lot of student loan debt," said Shirley Ort, UNC's associate provost and director of scholarships and student aid.
35% of UNC students graduating with a bachelor's degree took out loans, based on data from the 2012-2013 academic year, with the average cumulative federal loan debt at around $15,700 per student.
That's about $11,000 less than the 2011 national average - $26,600 - according to the Project on Student Debt.
Ort attributes low borrowing amounts to UNC's cost structure.
"If your costs are less, fewer students have to borrow," she said.
Although tuition has increased for in-state students, 38% of those funds are used to finance need-based grants for in and out-of-state undergrad and graduate students.
Carolina also lessens student loan debt through the sale of trademarked merchandise and items from the UNC Student Stores.
Proceeds from the Student Stores along with annual profits from trademarked UNC items - an additional $4.5 to $5 million - all go towards funding scholarships and grants.
"(The) university has a long-standing pattern and tradition of sharing profit with students in the form of scholarships," Ort said. "I'm proud to work for a university ... (that) cares as much as they do about making sure that students ... can come here and not leave overly burdened."
Albright College in Reading, Pa. has begun to focus on lowering loan debt for students via a $3.8 million increase in the college's financial aid budget.
The college will meet 100% of demonstrated student need beginning with the class of 2017- up 30% prior to plan changes, said Greg Eichhorn, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions at Albright.
An average of 90% Albright graduates took out loans - federal, private or PLUS - in previous years.
The financial aid increase will accommodate student needs and lower the level of debt present at graduation, Eichhorn said.
The University of Michigan is attempting to decrease student loan debt by lowering in-state tuition hikes - 1.1% for in-state and 3.2% for out-of-state undergraduates - and increasing financial aid revenues.
UM increased financial aid by $13.7 million for undergraduates --- the fifth consecutive year of no hikes in the net cost for students with need.
"We've been constantly increasing financial aid," said university spokesperson Rick Fitzgerald.
The new budget will also decrease average loan amounts by $500 in the 2014 fiscal year.
44% of the UM class of 2011 were in debt upon graduation, which is 22% lower than the national average for that year, based on data from the Project on Student Debt.
"Loans are the last piece of the financial aid puzzle," Fitzgerald said. "UM has done this during the last decade - a decade of decreasing student support."
These university efforts come during a period of disinvestment in higher education, according to John Quinterno, a principal with South by North Strategies, Ltd.
"Student loan debt has really exploded since around 2000," he said.
Average loan debt in 2000 was about $17,000 for full-time students at four-year institutions, based on data from the March 2002 State's PIRGs' Higher Education Project.
Quinterno says the burden of educational costs has shifted from the public to the individual, forcing students to take out loans.
With the fate of subsidized Stafford loan interest rates - which doubled on Monday - remaining uncertain until Congress returns from the Fourth of July holiday, university concerns are justified.
"We don't know what the future of government funding for student aid is going to look like," Ort said. "We just don't know."
Julia Craven is a summer 2013 Collegiate Correspondent.
Julia Craven, USA TODAY Collegiate Correspondent