Local colleges are helping students manage their debt even before they graduate to ensure they don’t become victims of the growing national student debt crisis.
About one in five adults ages 30 to 44 have student loan debt, according to information from the Pew Research Center (http://pewrsr.ch/2wJTqWz). The median amount owed in 2016 was $17,000, with the amount owed increasing by level of educational attainment. For example, those with bachelor’s degrees owed a median of $25,000, while those with postgraduate degrees owed a median of $45,000. Of those with postgraduate degrees and outstanding debt, however, 23 percent reported owing $100,000 or more, the Pew research found.
St. John Fisher College has enacted several proactive steps to help lower the number of students who default on their student loans, according to Melissa Greco Lopes, assistant director of marketing and communications.
For example, prior to graduation, the college’s Office of Student Financial Services provides students with online exit loan counseling to ensure they are knowledgeable about loan repayment options, she explained. The office also directs students to more information about their loans, she said.
“We meet with students and families to make sure they don’t borrow more than their estimated costs, and we give students the option of reducing loan funds with any scholarships or grants they may obtain,” Greco Lopes said.
St. John Fisher also has reduced its tuition in recent years to help offset growing college costs and awards several merit scholarships, which reward students for academic, service or science-related achievement, she said.
For students who take on federal loans to pay for their education, Greco Lopes said the government requires that they complete loan entrance counseling to understand their rights and responsibilities as borrowers. The U.S. Department of Education provides this online, interactive counseling so students can see estimates on total loans borrowed and what repayment plans may look like when they graduate. In addition, most colleges provide a “Net Price Calculator” on their websites so families are informed about college costs, she said.
The U.S. Department of Education’s student aid office also offers resources, including a money management checklist that offers tips on maintaining a budget, saving money, minimizing college costs, and reviewing loans and potential loan-rate reductions (http://bit.ly/2h1SmYB).
Providing money management strategies for students was part of a move that Nazareth College took about four years ago to boost students’ financial literacy, explained Jan Scheutzow, the college’s director of financial aid.
“We saw a need internally with students coming in stressed about starting (loan) repayment and not understanding what they had borrowed,” she said. “Smart borrowing habits start with smart savings habits.”
In addition to having counselors available to talk to students, she said the college brought to campus an interactive program called SALT. The membership program run by the nonprofit American Student Alliance helps students and recent alumni manage their money and student loans and provides a way for them to track all federal student loans in one location, according to information at http://bit.ly/2zabr1c. Additionally, students have access to SALT counselors and take a course called “My Money 101,” which teaches practical skills for budgeting, credit management and banking, according to the website.
Students are informed about these resources in freshman seminar classes as well as at presentations around campus and in their dorms, Scheutzow said. The college also promotes awareness of the program at games and campus events and through social media and e-mail reminders, she noted.
The college also touches base with its alumni within the first three years of graduation to remind them about payments and inquiring about concerns or questions that they may have, Scheutzow added.
About a third of its graduates have activated the SALT program upon receiving information about the free service, she said.
“Those first three years of loan repayment are the most critical,” Scheutzow said. “They get into solid (repayment) habits or poor (repayment) habits. It’s all about them making informed decisions and … (knowing) the resources available for success.”