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Many students struggle to find funds for their education

Published: Monday, June 17, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, June 17, 2013 10:18 a.m. CDT
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Photo Illustration by Rob Winner – rwinner@shawmedia.com

Attending college has been a financial struggle for Alora Schoenhofen.

The Northern Illinois University senior has completed each year of school wondering how she will be able to pay for the next.

She didn’t qualify for much need-based financial aid because her parents’ income was not in the lowest bracket.

She received a private loan her freshman year, but it would not carry her through the next three years.

“I literally went crying to Financial Aid,” she said.

Schoenhofen’s situation is not uncommon. Many students attending post-secondary institutions across the country struggle to find ways to pay for their education.

Qualifying for loans and financial aid is only the first step. Repaying the loans after graduation is what many students find to be the bigger challenge.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported in February that 35 percent of student loan borrowers under 30 were at least 90 days late on their payments at the end of last year, which is a 9 percent increase from 2008 and a 14 percent increase from 2004.

The report also noted student loan debt increased 11 percent last year, which is a 51 percent increase from 2008. The total student loan debt last year was $996 billion.

Rebecca Babel, financial aid director at NIU, said she and her advisers always recommend borrowing as little as possible.

“We try to make sure we’ve done everything we can to find out about outside, individual scholarships,” she said.

Helen Jareczek, whose son, Thomas, will be a freshman at NIU in the fall, said she and her husband, Frank, know their situation is rare. All three of their children were able to earn scholarships to pay for the majority of college costs.

“I do not know how people who have to do it on their own do it,” she said. “We’re very, very fortunate.”

Schoenhofen, who is studying psychology, said she’s racked up about $60,000 in student loans going into her senior year. She plans to go into social work, which requires her to go to graduate school. At the end of her academic career, she expects to have roughly $80,000 in loans to repay, and even more in interest.

“It’s kind of like being an indentured servant,” she said.

If she is able to find a job in her field relatively soon after graduation, Schoenhofen said her maximum salary would be about $35,000 in her first year in the workforce.

“It’s scary to think I might not be able ... to live on my own and make payments and make ends meet,” she said.

Unlike Schoenhofen, some students looking to continue their education don’t have a solid idea of what they want to study, which can be costly.

Pam Wagener, financial aid coordinator at Kishwaukee College, said that’s when community colleges are a good fit.

“We’re seeing that more and more families are saying, ‘That is good option for my child,’” she said. “Particularly for the students who are undecided or are not sure what they want to do.”

Wagener said she also discourages students from borrowing, but sometimes that’s their only option. Although enrollment at Kishwaukee College has increased over the last few years, she said she is seeing about the same number of students borrowing loans.

Babel said college is an investment that should be considered carefully, whether it be through borrowing loans or cutting back on certain costs by choosing a more affordable dormitory. It’s about prioritizing, she said.

“Part of what I think we have to realize is a college education may come as a great sacrifice as a student and parent,” she said.

Babel said the best way to minimize the amount a student borrows is for them to stay on track and graduate on time. While students remain in school, they are accruing interest on their loans and delaying earning income, she said.

“The No. 1 thing you can do is get done in four years,” she said. “And that can take some real work and planning.”

But Babel said paying for college can be especially hard to plan for right now, with several bills circulating through Congress with different types of interest rate adjustments. At this point, Babel said NIU has not originated any loans for next school year, as the office waits for a decision to hopefully be made July 1.

Right now, Babel said she is unable to give many students and parents a concrete amount of just how much college will cost them in the long run.

“That’s not a real comfortable thing to tell a family coming in on this investment for the next four years,” she said.

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