News

Families still finding ways to pay for college

After spending nearly 10 years working with cars in some capacity — as an automotive technician beginning at the age of 14, and later as a car salesman — Shaun Franks is now a full-time student at Macon State College’s Warner Robins campus, studying to become a teacher.

Following a dream, the 23-year-old finally took the plunge after saving money for years and experiencing the fluctuations of the automotive market.

“A lot more people are going back,” he said. “A lot more people are getting their degrees.”

Franks is one of thousands of Middle Georgia college students driving up enrollment numbers in area schools this year. Coinciding with the economic downturn, financial considerations are playing a major part in their academic decisions — from taking out loans to continue their studies, to enrolling in colleges with lower tuition costs.

Franks has already earned 50 credit hours from attending Georgia Southwestern State University but he left school and moved to Middle Georgia from his hometown of Americus to take a job working at Timco Aviation Services in Macon.

“I was ready to get out of a small town,” he said. “Everyone says that, but not everyone does that.”

Franks also wants to follow in the footsteps of his family. His sister is an English teacher and his mother a nursing alumna of Macon State College.

Currently, he pays for tuition with a combination of credit cards and the help of his mother. He is not eligible for financial aid until he turns 24 in November because last year he earned more than the $25,000 cutoff.

LESS EXPENSIVE OPTIONS

Though loans are a fact of life for many students and their families, a Sallie Mae poll conducted by Gallup in August revealed that 58 percent of families paid for college last year without borrowing any money. Among American families, 51 percent received grants and scholarships, 25 percent secured federal loans, 12 percent took out private education loans and 5 percent used credit cards to pay for college expenses, according to the survey.

Additionally, 67 percent of the families surveyed were confident in their ability to meet the costs for college in the current economy, according to the report.

One element contributing to the results from those surveyed is the decision of students to attend less expensive schools, cited by 48 percent of families as a cost-saving measure.

Local students such as Charles Johnston, 18, a freshman computer science and electrical engineering student at Macon State College in Warner Robins, are doing just that.

Despite being accepted to Louisiana State University, Johnston decided to complete his first two years at Macon State to save on out-of-state tuition costs. He plans to transfer to LSU afterward.

In doing so, he estimates that attending Macon State will cut his tuition costs by about 75 percent.

Technical schools provide another affordable way to build job skills in the market, said Janet Kelly, marketing & PR coordinator at Middle Georgia Technical College. Students there utilize options such as HOPE Grants and HOPE Scholarships, as well as Pell Grants and work study jobs.

Technical schools and colleges don’t offer loans, since their per-credit cost is considerably lower than at a public college or university in Georgia, Kelly said.

“A lot of people have an easier time financially at technical schools because we do have all these options available,” said Kelly.

STUDENTS AND LOANS

At Mercer University, a private institution, federal loans among students and families — such as Stafford and PLUS loans — have stayed at a consistent level with previous years, said Brian Dalton, senior vice president for enrollment management. He said the school could not track the loan amounts obtained through private lenders.

Dalton said 87 percent of students are on some sort of financial aid this year. Between merit-based scholarships, state and national aid, work study and other funding resources, Dalton said that for many families there is a significant difference between Mercer’s sticker price — estimated at nearly $30,000 in tuition and fees for the 2009-2010 fall and spring semesters, according to the university’s Web site — and the price families have to pay.

“[Students] should not limit themselves,” he said. “The sticker price is many cases are dramatically different. Mercer is evidence of exactly that.”

While Dalton said his office works with students to get maximum financial aid, he also is concerned about the amount of debt students are taking on to attend college, as well as for additional expenses. About two-thirds of college students take out loans for college, according to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, accruing an average debt of $23,186 by graduation.

“This is a generation of students saddled with debt,” he said.

Dalton credits a commitment to keeping student debt down through a four-year graduation guarantee at the university, as loans for college beyond the fourth year usually become significantly higher.

“If we can get students out in four years, to graduate or professional school or in the market, then Mercer is a much better value to parents and students than schools whose graduation time is five or five and a half years,” Dalton said

KaLia Burnette, 18, a sophomore biomedical engineering major from Lithonia at Mercer, depends on scholarships and loans her mother has taken out to help pay for school.

“My mom is handling the money,” she said. “She doesn’t want me to have loans when I graduate.”

Because of the economy, a number of her friends have not been able to return to Mercer this year, Burnette said.

The economy has affected her own decisions in a number of ways, such as renting textbooks from Web sites like Textbooksrus.com or Amazon.com rather than buying them from the school bookstore.

Financial concerns also affected her summer plans, forcing her to limit her internship search to paid opportunities. She accepted a microbiology research opportunity at Auburn instead of a biomedical research opportunity at Washington University dealing with prosthetics.

“I had to take an internship not directly dealing with my major,” she said.

Rashele Moore, 19, also a biomedical engineering student at Mercer from Lithonia, relies on a combination of loans, scholarships and of out-of-pocket spending to finance her education. During the summer, she took a job a Joe’s Crab Shack to help cover school expenses, and now Moore said she has become more aware of her spending habits than before.

“Last year as a freshman I wasn’t really worried about it,” she said.

Moore mentioned the possibility of not being able to return to Mercer next year for financial reasons, though both her parents work — her father as an engineer and her mother in the health care sector.

“It depends on my engineering scholarship and financial aid,” she said.

DEBT AND NECESSITY

Officials at Georgia College & State University are also concerned that more students are taking out loans to attend the school.

Georgia College has seen a 13 percent increase in financial applications received this year, said Cathy Crawley, director of financial aid and scholarships. This year, the number of Pell Grant recipients has increased by 42 percent, and the total amount of Pell dollars dispersed has increased by 67 percent.

Additionally, there has been a 45 percent increase in student loans and a 34 percent increase in the dollar amount of loans awarded.

Crawley said many parents take out loans to help cover educational costs. This year, more are being denied those loans because of bad credit. As a result, more students are taking out loans in their names instead.

In May 2008, Congress allowed students to borrow an extra $2,000 in Stafford loans, Crawley said, and many Georgia College students are taking advantage of that option and adding to their personal post-graduation debt.

“It’s more than we’d like to see,” she said.

Students will soon be able to benefit from more government grant dollars thanks to a bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives Sept. 17 with measures to end subsidies for private lenders. In doing so, the government estimates it will save $87 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Those funds would then be used to increase the maximum Pell Grant amount to $6,900 over the next decade.

About 68 percent of students at Macon State College are on some form of financial aid, according to Dee Minter, associate vice president for enrollment services,

This year, the school awarded 101 partial and full scholarships to students, up from last year’s 71, Minter said. There also have been more student applicants for scholarships this year.

While more students and families are benefiting from grants and scholarships, Minter said her office has seen no decrease in student loan applications.

“One reason is because we always encourage students to look for scholarships and grants,” she said. “Then, if they aren’t able to procure enough of those dollars, they look at loan money to make up the difference.”

Minter said the student population at the school is divided almost evenly between traditional college students who rely on their families to help pay for school and adults who are footing their own bills for educational expenses.

Despite the increase in loans among students, more are choosing to return to college to make themselves marketable, Minter said.

“The central Georgia region has come to embrace the fact that to obtain a professional job in this economy, you need at least a bachelor’s degree,” Minter said. “Perhaps the reason their job has not lasted, has not been the career they want it to be, is because they don’t have the education. The bachelor’s degree better insulates them from the fluctuation in the economy.”

To contact Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.

  Comments