National ranking puts Macon near top for student loan debt. How residents handle rising costs

Michelline Dieujuste-Antoine enrolled at Mercer University in 2012. She relied on scholarships, help from her parents and student loans to pay for tuition at the Macon college.

By the time she reached her junior year, she had $40,000 in student loans. She said she dropped out of college, no longer able to afford the cost of an undergraduate education.

She has a plan to eventually finish her college degree and pay the student loan debts, but like many others, the loans piled up more quickly than she expected. She said she didn’t really understand how student loans worked when she first started college.

“I feel like we’re kind of rushed straight from high school into college and we build up this debt and we spend the rest of our lives paying it off. I think that’s an absolutely terrible system, but it’s not going to be fixed until we start increasing education about (student loans),” she said.

Dieujuste-Antoine joined the 44 million Americans who collectively owe $1.5 trillion in student loan debt.

Michelline Dieujuste-Antoine was a student at Mercer University. She is working to pay off her student loan debt.

Macon is ranked 28 in the nation for average student loan debt in a metro area, according to research by Experian. Student loan debt in the city increased by 7.1% from 2018 to 2019, based on the report from the consumer and business reporting service.

Many students and parents in Middle Georgia are trying to figure out how to balance paying for the increasing cost of college with managing future debt. The financial decisions students make while in college will impact their lives for years to come.

Meanwhile, some colleges and education experts are looking at the role that increasing tuition plays in the student debt crisis.

Rising college tuition in Middle Georgia

One factor related to student debt in Georgia is the rising cost of college tuition.

The average tuition increase in Georgia overall from the 2015-2016 school year to the 2016-2017 school year was 2.2%, according to data from the Institute of College Access and Success.

During that same period, the institute reported that the average debt of Georgia college graduates increased by 3.6% from 2016 to 2017. Nationally, tuition increased by 3.1%, and debt increased by 1.02%.

Middle Georgia colleges are seeing tuition increases as well. The University System of Georgia recently approved a 2.5% tuition increase for the 2019 school year. That means higher tuition for students at Middle Georgia State University, Fort Valley State University and Georgia College and State University

Mercer University and Wesleyan College saw tuition increases of 2.5% and 5.3%, respectively from 2018 to 2019.

Penny Elkins, senior vice president for enrollment management at Mercer, said the university is working to keep tuition increases between 2% and 2.5% and trying to decrease student loans.

From the 2017-2018 school year to the 2018-2019 school year, the average student loan debt for graduating students at Mercer decreased by 0.5%, based on data provided by Elkins.

“We’re helping families understand on the front end, this is what the expectation is, and then working through and with students each and every year through our Office for Student Success,” Elkins said.

For instance, in 2013, Mercer representatives started meeting with freshmen and their families to review financial aid package in detail, explaining what families are expected to pay.

Students and parents interviewed by The Telegraph say family support is crucial as they plan how to pay for college and handle debt after graduation.

According to a 2018 survey by Country Financial, 53% of Americans aged 21-37 have received some form of financial assistance from a parent, guardian or family member since turning 21.

Katlyn Stanley is a student at Middle Georgia State University. She has no student loan debt because of the Hope Scholarship and Pell Grant.

David Badaszewski is a student at Mercer University. He has $30,000 in student loans.

Katlyn Stanley, an early childhood special education major at Middle Georgia State University, lives with her grandfather, who pays for the majority of bills.

“When I graduate, hopefully I’ll have a teaching job, so then I’ll be able to support myself. I have a part-time job right now, but it doesn’t (pay) a lot, so it’s kind of hard to support myself right now,” she said.

The HOPE Scholarship and Federal Pell Grant help cover her full cost of college, she said. When she graduates, she plans to go into the teaching field without having any student loan debts.

David Badaszewski, a rising senior at Mercer’s Townsend School of Music, said he will have $30,000 in student loans when he graduates. The amount of his loans has made a difference in where he plans to attend graduate school.

“I’ve decided that I will not go anywhere where I’ll have to take out (more) loans, “ Badaszewski said. “As for my current top choice of grad school, I would be moving back in with my mother so I would not have the living expenses. I would be able to save up again for the next round of student loan payments after the deferment period ends.”

Right now, his biggest challenge is the cost of living in Macon.

“I still can’t afford to pay for my housing without external help. And I’m very lucky that I live with my girlfriend, so we are able to pool our resources,” he said.

Bristol Shelton, a Perry resident and the parent of a Mercer graduate and a current Mercer student, said she made a deal with her children about college and costs.

“This was what our deal was with our children: If you want to go to Mercer, you have got to get a scholarship,” she said. “I didn’t want my children to leave undergrad with debt.”

Her children, Grant and Carter Shelton, received scholarships that covered half of their college costs. The other half was paid for by their parents.

After he graduated in May 2019, Grant Shelton took out loans to fund his graduate education at Dental College of Georgia in Augusta.

“The need for the profession he’s going into is high, and he knows at the salary level he’ll be at, he will be able to afford to pay back the loans,” his mother said.

Nicolas Ziebarth, an economics professor at Auburn University, said there is some evidence that debt encourages students to major in certain fields and to take jobs with higher monetary gain.

“Students with high debt loads take higher paying jobs (investment banking) over jobs that have higher non-monetary returns (teaching in an inner city school),” he said in an email to The Telegraph.

Ziebarth said because borrowers take higher-paying jobs, they actually earn more than non-borrowers.

Getting rid of student loan debt

Student loans will likely play a big part in students’ lives after college and it takes planning to manage the debt.

“It makes it a little bit difficult when you’re trying to buy a car, get a credit card,” Dieujuste-Antoine said. “My current issue was with finding a place to rent. (The debt) dragged my credit score down. You have this large debt and you’re on an entry-level job, and it just doesn’t look good when you’re trying to find housing. Your interest rates tend to be really terrible.”

She and Badaszewski have a plan for how to pay their student loans.

After Dieujuste-Antoine dropped out of college, she enrolled in the military.

“My current plan is to reenlist for another six years and do the student loan repayment program through them,” Dieujuste-Antoine said.

The Army’s College Loan Repayment Program pays a portion of student loans every year for those that score high enough on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, an entry test, she said. Students have to serve at least six years and stay in favorable standing in order to receive payments.

Badaszewski’s strategy is to use his savings to pay a lump sum and then opt into the monthly payment plan.

Like Dieujuste-Antoine, he said he didn’t understand the loan process. Badaszewski said if he knew what he knows now about student loans when he was 18 years old, he wouldn’t choose to saddle himself with $30,000 in debt.

“I just don’t think that they were particularly very transparent with an 18-year-old kid looking at these options,” he said.

Elkins said Mercer has recently invested in a program, CampusLogic, where students can access courses on financial literacy. The university’s Office of Student Financial Planning also offers webinars to assist with how to pay student loans.

Elkins advises students to make sure they keep the Office for Student Success or the Office of Student Financial Planning informed if they’re struggling financially.

She said her greatest joy is being able to help students figure out a path to working out financial issues and being able to stay in school.

“When you’re at the point where you think, ‘Okay, I cannot continue at Mercer if I don’t get some assistance,’ we want to know that,” she said.

Anisah Muhammad is an intern reporter at The Telegraph, a journalism major at Mercer University, a self-published author, a spoken word poet and the co-founder of an online magazine.