Sunday, March 11, 2007

College Life

Making Ends Meet: Finding The True Joys of College Debt
By Leigh Baker

Why is it that some college students have greater financial struggles than others? What can students learn from their fiscal difficulties, especially the ones that they have no control over? College debt is one issue that dominates the thoughts of those who face it.

Unforeseen circumstances, sudden financial change, loss of scholarships and loans, and many other unexpected conditions can cause great stress and drama in the lives of college students in the United States. Without the help of parents, the government, or the institution attended, there is little that can be done to avoid these states of unrest in the minds of students. Those who do not have to worry about education finances are often considered the “lucky ones,” but many times, those who had to pay their own way through college are much more appreciative in the end for what they worked so hard to give themselves.

As Jessica Wegrzyn, a student who was only able to complete her first year of college due to unavailable finances, states, “You have to be reasonable with yourself.” If taking out a $40,000 loan to attend a private school is going to set you back in the long run, there is no need. Because most students attending liberal arts schools in New York City are studying the arts, it may be realistic to assume that their wages outside of college will not permit quick, easy repayment of loans.

In Wegrzyn’s situation, a private college was costing her nearly $20,000 per year for full time tuition, not including books, supplies, or room and board. By transferring to a SUNY school, State University of New York, she is saving approximately $14,000 per year in tuition costs. There are plenty of schools around the nation with costs similar to these, which are well acclaimed for certain programs of study and offer a plethora of financial aid options to assist the students with rising higher education costs. In this case, a $10,000 loan will do the trick for Wegrzyn.

So why, then, do students put the pressure on themselves to continue at their initial institution if they simply do not have the money? Many incoming freshman feel that once they’ve chosen an institution and even a major, it must be their final decision. Wegrzyn continued by reminding us that, “Technically, you could transfer to a different college every single semester, and no one can tell you not to. “As long as you find something that brings you enjoyment and is affordable, you’re allowed to go wherever you want to.”

College debt is typically associated with a younger crowd, but nearly 100,000 adults ranging in age from 35 to 54 years are returning to college each year. One continuing education student, Barb Scott, says that she will probably be receiving bills for loans she took out almost four years ago for at least the next ten years. That could be nearing retirement for some folks. A college such as Grand Valley State University, the state school Scott attended, doesn’t cost much more than $7,000 per year excluding books and supplies; however, with little time to further your career, it’s difficult to get the loan payments out of your mailbox before the age of 50.

Some would regard that as a frightening thought, especially considering that the average amount of federal aid given to students 30 years and over who used a loan system received approximately $7,600, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That equates to nearly an entire four-year education that must be pay off. Scott says that she really enjoyed her return to school despite the financial hardships because, not only did it give her a pleasant break from the working world, but, “You appreciate it more as you get older.” With the nursing degree that she pursued, she has held a solid job that requires a wide range of knowledge. She still refers to her old textbooks to refresh her memory.

Both Wegrzyn and Scott are members of the middle class. Wegrzyn’s family works for the money earned, and they use some of it to finance her current situation. Scott is in the process of getting rid of the loans that she currently has which financed her return to college. Does the middle class face a great struggle? Wegrzyn notes that, while they are able to put food on the table, “They may have two, three, or four kids to put through college while still surviving, themselves.” According to The Education Statistics Quarterly, 65% of middle-class college students, like Wegrzyn, planning to attend a liberal arts college, will not have their educational financial needs met.

Darla Wright, who attended Central Michigan University directly after her graduation from high school in the early 1980s, says that these traumas can be considered insignificant because the gratification she received after paying her own way was justification enough. To many students like her, sending off the final loan payment is a tremendous feeling.

So, in fact, we could conclude that the “lucky ones” who hardly pay a dollar throughout their four years at college are not so lucky after all. Wegrzyn actually sees her situation in a positive light. “This has made me realize what I want. It’s affected the rest of my college experience.” She says that regardless of the destitution she’s faced thus far, she has a better grasp on her desires, and she now knows what it is that makes her as strong as she has become.

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