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Dealing with student debt

By Blake Bradford
Mar 28, 2017

Any bright, sunny day in the life of the average college student will quickly turn cloudy and gray upon hearing the words “student debt.” Both a tool and a necessary evil, it follows students for years after their final semester.

According to Cathy Colapietro, director of student financial aid services, 75.6 percent of MNU graduates leave the school with some form of debt, an average of $29,569 per student. This number is approximately $4,000 more than the state average of $25,521 per student, according to the Institute for College Access and Success.

A graph showing MNU’s financial trends from the past 10 years. Student payments and grants have both increased throughout the past 10 years at MNU. Graphic by Blake Bradford.A graph showing MNU’s financial trends from the past 10 years. Student payments and grants have both increased throughout the past 10 years at MNU. Graphic by Blake Bradford.

“I was very reliant [on student loans],” said Stephanie Dulin, a 1999 MNU alumnus who continues to make payments 18 years after graduating. “Most of my college [expenses were] from student loans. I thought my parents were going to be able to help, but my sophomore year they said there was no way they could. It was either quit college, or keep going and accrue debt.”

Savannah Hoit, a 2014 MNU alumnus, described a very different experience repaying debt.

“I always liked to work,” Hoit said. “I feel like I saved up a lot before I even went to school. I worked through school, so the debt that I left with wasn’t huge, probably not as bad as the average student, which was such a big blessing.”

Hoit managed to pay off her loan debt only 10 months after graduating. She said she recalls that much of her experience at MNU led to her opportunity to live debt-free. She said her accounting professor set her up with an accounting firm, so she did an internship there during her undergraduate years.

“That turned into a full-time job,” Hoit said. “It was such a great firm, and they had great benefits, and it was because of that job that I was able to pay off my student loans within 10 months of graduating. Had I not had those connections through my professor at MNU, I don’t think I would have had such a good job that allowed me to do that.”

Hoit recommends that, in order to pay off debt faster, graduates should live within their means until their debt is paid off. While it may be appealing to immediately start living off an income from a well-paying job, Hoit strongly discouraged it. She focused on the fact that interest continues to accumulate as a person puts off paying off loans, thereby increasing the overall debt.

“Put it in as part of your budget, that you want to pay x amount of dollars every month or every six months, instead of just believing ‘if I have it I’ll pay it,’” Hoit said. “The more you set aside money for that, the more efficient you’ll be with your money, and the sooner you can hit the goal of paying off student loans.”

Student loans are nothing new. The majority of students utilize federal student loans to pay for their tuition, which are regulated by the federal government and distributed through MNU’s financial aid department. The maximum amount that students can borrow from federal loans depends on their year of study, with freshman borrowing a maximum of $3,500, and then an additional $1,000 each year. Any other amount borrowed is through private loans, which are handled quite a bit differently. Financial aid officers at MNU are only allowed to certify eligibility for private loans, and parents and students are solely responsible for seeking them out and getting them approved. Colapietro said that it has been years since the department of education has raised those borrower levels.

“Those have been pretty steady at that level for a long time,” Colapietro said. “I’ve been in the business for about 35 years, and it’s only changed once from $4,000 to $5,500.”

MNU offers many tools for students to repay their debt. Before allowing students to accept loans, every student must undergo entrance counseling that explains the different types of loans, and how they uniquely affect students. Colapietro said that the main advice she gives to students is to be aware of their debt, and the difference between types of federal loans.

“There are two types of federal loans, subsidized and unsubsidized,” Colapietro said. “Subsidized loans do not accrue debt while the student is studying, however unsubsidized loans start to accrue interest 60 days after that loan is disbursed. A lot of the stories you hear about loan debt is from not being aware of that interest that builds while a student is still studying. Go to the National Student Loan Data System at any time to see what your student debt is and find your loan servicer, and if there’s any way to make early interest payments on the unsubsidized loans, make those early payments.”

Kevin Garber, director of alumni relations at MNU, shared similar recommendations for students.

“From a biblical perspective, debt makes it very difficult for the person in debt to thrive and be successful in life,” Garber said. “I encourage people as a general rule to do everything they can to be debt-free. When they have to use debt, use it for the purpose it’s for, then get rid of it as quickly as possible.”

Garber graduated from MNU in 1989 with a degree in business and $12,000 in debt, then managed to pay it off in less than three years. He said he had a simple strategy to pay off debt as quickly as he could.

“I made payments as big as possible. I paid as much over the minimum as I could until I could get it paid for and paid off,” Garber said. “While student debt, as I look at it, is almost impossible for some people to come to college without, like for some people it’s impossible to have a house without a mortgage, but it’s all the same principle. As soon as you are able to get it payed off, your life will be freed up to be joyful and successful.”

Blake Bradford

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Blake Bradford is a student at MidAmerica Nazarene University and a reporter for The Trailblazer.

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