Students strive to graduate debt-free

Doug Schantz often sees a “deer in the headlights” look on the faces of future college students and their families who come to him for advice on paying for college.

Finding the right academic program that will lead to a job, at the right college and at the right price can be complicated. Today, Americans are making those decisions while facing a “confidence crisis” about higher education brought on by a tight job market and record student loan debt that now exceeds $1 trillion nationwide.

Just half of Americans said they think college is “still a good investment” in 2013, compared to 81 percent in 2008, according the recent COUNTRY Financial Security Index.

“I was encountering families who just felt in over their heads when they were looking at sticker prices at colleges and universities and thinking about not just getting one child through, but maybe three children,” said Schantz, director of student accounts at Wittenberg University.

“It’s still foreign territory to them,” he said. “They don’t know what all is available.”

Schantz launched in 2010 to offer free help. He has a long list of tips, but the first step, he said, is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — commonly called the FAFSA.

“That’s the gateway to accessing financial aid,” he said. “That kicks off the rest of everything when it comes to paying for college and accessing free money.”

Average debt is $28,683

Casey O’Brien was almost singularly focused on on avoiding debt when he was selecting a college.

“I sat down with my parents and looked at the schools,” he said. “They basically reasoned with me from the financial perspective.”

O’Brien, a Springfield native, chose Wittenberg and graduated this year with no student loans.

That placed him in the minority. About 68 percent of college students in Ohio borrow to pay for their education, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Ohio ranks seventh in the nation for the amount its student borrow: $28,683 by the time they graduate, the nonprofit found. That amount is up nearly $9,500 from the class of 2005.

The growing student loan debt has the attention of the public, lawmakers and even President Barack Obama. And more than ever, students are watching it too.

“It used to be that only parents might be concerned about that, but we get students asking those types of questions now too,” said Brandi Lee, coordinator of financial aid for Miami Middletown.

O’Brien, who majored in journalism, followed many of the tips experts offer on controlling costs: He sought out scholarships and won them to defray Wittenberg’s annual $37,230 tuition bill; entered Wittenberg with nearly a semester’s worth of credits from taking Advanced Placement classes in high school; avoided the annual $10,000 charge for room and board by living at home; and worked odd jobs and part-time while in college at Dairy Queen.

He said he was lucky enough to have his parents and grandmother to help fill the gap between financial aid and the total cost of living and studying. That is allowing him to continue his education at the University of Cincinnati law school this fall, he said.

“It’s really unfortunate what’s going on today, the situation that students are placed in,” he said. “It’s really bleak and it’s saddening because you have passions in one area and then you have to forgo those passions because of realities.”

‘Too expensive’

Ohio students take many different paths in order to save on their college degrees.

Sutton Smith said he chose the University of Dayton for law school because the private school offers a rare two-year program.

“I was making money and I was going to stop making money in school,” he said. “The option to get the degree in two years, as opposed to three, meant one fewer year borrowing for living expenses and one year earlier into the job market.”

Trevor Williams and April Jones are saving about $10,000 a year on tuition by starting their studies at Miami University’s regional campuses. Ohio students overall saved nearly $37 million in 2010 by transferring their credits from less expensive public schools or campuses to more expensive ones, according to the Board of Regents.

Full-time students pay $2,536 to $3,833 for tuition at Miami’s regional campuses, compared to $13,266 at the Oxford campus.

Williams, a zoology student from West Chester Twp., said he had considered an out-of-state school but was turned off by the high tuition, which is typically at least double.

“It was just way too expensive,” he said.

Jones, a 53-year-old who just returned to Ohio from Texas, said she is happy to save by taking as many classes in Middletown as she can.

“As a nontraditional student, I feel it’s a good way to slowly put your feet back in the water of the academic world,” said Jones, who is studying finance and creative writing.

Cedarville University junior Ellie Entner said her goal is to graduate with less than $10,000 in loans, and she is on track. The Cedarville native is living off-campus to save money and focused on applying for scholarships before entering school.

She estimates she cut her college costs by $40,000 with scholarships; saved $20,000 by living off campus; and avoided $20,000 in loans by working during the summer and school year.

“I rent or buy my books secondhand, splurge as little as possible and kept careful track of my budget,” she said.

“I can see how easily debt could snowball into something monstrous,” she said.

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