Drowning in student debt

hannah bostrom, staff writer

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+Dreams can be expensive, but for some, the cost of pursuing a dream can be an economic nightmare.

“My absolute dream school was Boston University,” Sara Pardej, 2014 graduate, said. “I found out a couple of weeks after I sent my application that I couldn’t afford to go to Boston. My parents sat me down saying, ‘Okay, we’ve done all of the calculations, and there’s no way that we can afford it,’” Pardej said. “So, I actually hoped I wouldn’t get into Boston, or I’d get wait listed because it would be like, ‘Okay fine, I don’t have to worry about it.’ But when I got the letter saying, ‘Congratulations! You’ve been accepted to Boston University!’ I felt devastated because I knew I had to say no to my dream school. I got into all of the other colleges I applied to, but they weren’t Boston.”

Because of the high price of college tuition, some students’ choices of college are restricted, like Pardej’s was. Prices were not always as high as today. The cost of college has increased 12-15% over the past decade, according to Chris Bennett, economics teacher. Today, the cost per year can be upwards of $80,000, depending on the specific college.

“I think you have a number of factors [for the rising price of college],” Bennett said. “Just think about everything that goes into college. You have professors, you have food, you have dorms, and you have the space the college takes up. I think the cost of all of those things has gone up dramatically. And on top of that, the cost for everything has gone up, so if you put those two together, then college costs more, and I don’t think it’s stopping anytime soon.”

No matter the reason for the dramatic cost, college attendees are still stuck with the task of paying now or borrowing and paying later.

But students do not have to wait until college to help manage their tuition costs. Students can apply for scholarships and grants to help bring down tuition in the first place.

“Between grants and scholarships, you almost always end up paying less,” Carl Krause, college counselor said. “The best source for scholarships is the college you are going to go to. That is where you are going to get awarded the most money. There are scholarships for so many things, like Tall Club of Chicago for girls over 5’10″ and guys over 6’5″. There’s one for being Norwegian, for being left handed. The problem is you need to find them, and then they are usually very competitive because they are national, so you and every other person that found that same scholarship gets one, so it’s very, very competitive.”

Students and their families sometimes sit down together to come up with the most cost effective plan so they know what the family and student can realistically handle. That is exactly like Pardej and her family did.

“We had those talks pretty much every night at dinner,” Pardej said. “My dad lost his job, which was why money was such a big thing for us. My mom is only a teller at a bank, and she doesn’t make any money because what she does make goes towards our health insurance so we can go to the dentist and the doctor. Every night at dinner, my parents would remind me, ‘Make sure you’re applying for scholarships and looking at grants.’ What was difficult was my dad didn’t go to college, and my mom went to college in Poland 20 some years ago, so they didn’t know anything. We really had to sit down and worry about FAFSA, how scholarships work, how grants work, how scholarships within schools work, and private scholarships. Because my parents didn’t know how to do any of that, I had to sit down and do the FAFSA forms, help out my parents, have out the tax returns, you know, guide them because they were learning at the same rate I was. That was frustrating.”

Another topic families should talk about during these discussions is the price of a college compared to a student’s projected salary from a career choice associated with their major in order to figure out whatever student loans are worth it, according to Krause.

“Are you going to pay $50,000 a year to become a teacher? Because you are going to take a long time to make that money back,” Krause said. “But are you going to spend $200,000 to become a physical therapist? That makes sense because you’re going make that money back a lot faster. The bottom line is: are you making good decisions on how to spend your money and your major, whatever that may be?”

Even though Krause can help students make good decisions about how to spend their money, he cannot help students keep up with their classwork during the application process. Students are still expected to complete all homework to keep their grades up just in case a college looks at senior year grades. The stress that puts on students can be overwhelming, like Pardej experienced during her application process.

“At the moment, I was super stressed,” Pardej said. “FAFSA opened sometime in January. I still had school going on, so there were papers, and homework, and AP and honors classes, and I had to get all that done, and I had a job, and I still had to find time to apply for all these things, and then I would have to find time with my parents to sit down with them and have them explain taxes to me; it’s a total mess.”

Even after keeping up with school work and applying for scholarships and grants, the money taken off the tuition is still too high to pay off without any help. Students can apply for loans either from the government, banks, or the school itself to help pay off the rest of these fees. The amount of loans can be excessive, so it can take a long time to pay off, according to Krause. One strategy to help pay off your loans is to create a budget, according to Bennett.

“It took me until I was 27 years old [to pay off my student loans],” Bennett said. “I just made a budget and stuck to it. I took that money out of my paycheck right away, then I paid my rent, then whatever I had left over is whatever I had left over for the month. Just like many 20-somethings, I was poor for many years. To get along, you live in a four bedroom apartment down in Wrigleyville with some of your friends and split your costs. You eat as cheaply as possible by making a giant pot of chili on Sundays and eating that all week long. You do whatever you have to do for however long you have to do it.”

But not all students can have their loans paid back by their 20s.

“I have friends in their 40s still paying off their college loans,” Krause said. “I think it all depends where students get their loans from. Most loans outside of government control are private loans, so they come from banks. Banks charge a high interest, and when interest accrues, it takes longer to pay everything off. If you go to a private school at $30,000 a year, and you don’t start paying it back until after graduation, that’s $120,000 when you’re 22. It’s going to take a while to pay that back if you’re a profession like a teacher.”

That is where budgeting can come in and help students to save early and often, like Pardej has figured out.

“[I like to] know how much money I have, and how much I can spend,” Pardej said. “I [budget] on a monthly basis. I give myself a certain amount of money I can spend, and if I spend it too early, which I have done one month, then I only let myself use my credit cards for emergency money. I will avoid going out, I will walk across campus without ordering Chinese food, and I will get dorm food on my meal plan. I think if you know what you have, you’re not going to go over it. That’s something I definitely have to keep reminding myself every once in a while.”

The stress of budgeting and balancing student loans is enough to make anyone question the benefits of going to college. But, according to Bennett, the potential earnings with a college degree outweigh the cost of tuition: those with a college degree will earn around $1.4 to $1.6 million more over a lifetime compared to those without a college degree.

Pardej also realizes the potential earnings, which is why obtaining a college degree was the right choice for her, regardless of the high costs.

“I know, at first, going into college I was thinking, ‘why is it so expensive,’ but then I realized they’re training me how to do what I’m going to do for the rest of my life,” Pardej said. “I just have to keep reminding myself that if I don’t do this, I won’t be able to be successful. People don’t have to go to college, but in order for me to be happy and do something I’m passionate about, I have to be going here, and I have to keep reminding myself of that. The money is going to hopefully be worth it.”

 

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