Let’s help students graduate with less college debt
by Alan S. Cureton

Much has been written about the student loan crisis in the United States, from outstanding loan balances outpacing the national credit card debt to organizing marches on Wall Street. Not only has the weight of student debt been portrayed as the nation’s next financial tsunami, but it’s fair to say it has been at the very core of family discussions and decisions about post-secondary education.

Yet it’s also appropriate to say that colleges can be much more proactive in working with students and their families to find creative solutions. With the Minnesota student loan balance per borrower at $29,000 (according to Minnesota Public Radio), colleges and universities must answer the question: How can we help students graduate with less college debt?

The answer will have enormous impacts on America’s future and career paths for tomorrow’s graduates. Part of this reality is that the cost of higher education has escalated with all else in the economic climate. As president of a Christian college, I am watchful of our students’ and parents’ concerns for the future. As good stewards, they are cautious about taking on too much debt—a characteristic that helps keep our student loan debt substantially below state and national averages.

The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports that “the outstanding student loan balance now stands at about $870 billion, surpassing the total credit card balance ($693 billion) and the total auto loan balance ($730 billion). Unlike credit card and auto loans, the student loan market is incredibly complex. Numerous players hold stakes at each level of the market, includ­ing federal and state governments, colleges and universities, financial institutions, students and their families.”

At Northwestern College, we’ve taken several steps to counter the crisis. We are Minnesota’s largest private school provider of PSEO: Post Secondary Enrollment Options, where students gain college credit while in high school. Northwestern also counsels with students to incorporate lower cost options, such as online summer programs or additional credits, into their schedules.

Our 2011/2012 student debt report shows that those who started Northwestern with PSEO credits reduced their debt at graduation by more than $11,000 (an average debt of $16,323) compared to the previous year’s average debt (2010/2011). The average student debt at Northwestern College has also decreased by $5,000 to $21,956. Those figures place the student debt at Northwestern at 43.7% to 24.3% below the reported average of $29,000 in loan debt for Minnesota students who graduated in 2011.

In addition, Northwestern welcomes—and recruits—students who are prepared to take advantage of the maximum full-time 18 credits per semester and graduate in less than four years. At the same time, we recognize that students and their families are not professionals in navigating the financial aid landscape, so when the Northwestern College Financial Aid Office sets up the formula for awarding financial aid for students, we set forth the best loan options available to help bridge the gap students have after scholarships and grants are awarded.

Student loans support the education of millions of students, yet much more can be done to inform and collaborate with students and their families on ways to reduce the indebtedness students take into their post-college lives.

Numbers we’ve found suggest that after all is said and done, 86% of recent college graduates say that the investment has been worth it for them (2011 Pew Research Center).

At Northwestern College, we believe that addressing the student loan crisis begins on campus in an environment of transparency that focuses on reducing students’ uncertainty and confusion around taking out loans and gives them a road map to minimize their debt after graduation.

Alan S. Cureton, Ph.D., is president of Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn.

Published by Minnesota Christian Examiner — November 2012

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