Graduates usually leave college with greater knowledge, understanding and experience – and, more often, a staggering student loan debt.
An average of 53 percent of Oklahoma’s students graduate with debt, and those who do have an average of $23,636 to pay back, according to the 2012 statistics from The Project on Student Debt. It doesn’t have to be that way.
For a college student facing debt, scholarships are huge opportunities, but they will not be awarded to a student who doesn’t search for them, says Jamie Glover, associate vice president for enrollment management at Cameron University in Lawton.
“Apply. Apply. Apply. Students should work hard to find scholarship opportunities,” Glover says. “Very seldom do scholarships just land in a student’s lap. Students need to make it a priority to seek out opportunities and to apply. Not all will work out, but those that do are well worth the investment in time in takes to apply.”
Scholarship and grant opportunities are almost always listed on a school’s website, but there are also many scholarship-specific search engines. Glover recommends www.okcollegestart.org as a source for sorting credible scholarship sites.
Sonya Gore, director of student financial aid at Oklahoma City Community College, says the U.S. Department of Education website www.studentaid.gov is a great tool for learning about federal student aid. The site also provides a link to the U.S. Department of Labor’s free scholarship search tool.
Be wary of membership sites that require money, says Gore.
“Never pay for a scholarship search or application,” Gore says.
Other places to look are local businesses and organizations like banks, credit unions, area businesses, Rotary clubs and churches.
“Local folks advocate for local students to succeed in their education endeavors,” Gore says.
To increase chances of attaining scholarships, Matthew Hamilton, vice president and registrar of enrollment and student financial services at the University of Oklahoma, says students should carefully go through the application and complete all requirements.
“Students should meet all deadlines, complete all sections of scholarship applications and make sure to pay attention to details like letters of recommendation and personal essays,” Hamilton says.
It can definitely be easier to complete school if the classes are cheaper in the first place. The cost of attending a community college can be less than half the cost of attending a university, says Gore.
Some community colleges, OCCC included, also partner with state universities to develop programs that transfer directly to larger schools. This way, students who want to go to a four-year university can make that transition easily after completing their basic coursework at a community college and at a more affordable price.
“This ultimately saves students and parents thousands of dollars,” Gore says.
Federal work-study programs can also help pay the cost of attending school. Awarded through completion of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), work-study jobs are part-time positions available to students with financial need. Universities also offer work positions, but to all students and regardless of need.
Once federal work-study is awarded, then it is up to the student to find jobs available through the program.
“Applying for and obtaining a work-study position is much like applying for any job,” says Glover. “Students should present themselves like they would to any employer and be persistent in applying for jobs until they obtain one. Once students have obtained a job on campus, they are often able keep that position until graduation.”
With federal work-study, it’s important that students follow-through with FAFSA paperwork as early as possible, says Jennifer Zehnder, creative services, marketing and media assistant director at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah.
“File the FAFSA early each year, after Jan. 1, to make sure you meet the state grant deadline and take advantage of certain programs that have limited funding,” Zehnder says.
Although work-study helps, Denise Flis, senior director of the financial services office at Oklahoma City University, says students should not rely exclusively on it if they hope to graduate without student loan debt.
“Work-study is typically limited to 20-25 hours per week and makes minimum wage, so it helps a lot but typically doesn’t result in a student being able to graduate debt-free,” Flis says.
Graduate students also have the option of applying for assistant positions through their degree program.
While still in high school, ambitious and thrifty students can get a head start on college by planning ahead as much as possible. For incoming college freshman, opportunities for grants and scholarships can be dramatically improved by their high school achievements and performance excellence.
“For traditional age college students particularly, academic performance in high school and on ACT and SAT (exams) can be directly tied to scholarship attainment,” says Glover.
Students taking Advanced Placement classes in high school can also save money because they test out of the applicable college courses.
With careful planning and by being proactive, students should not be deterred from pursuing a degree because of the cost.
“It is important for students and parents to think critically about how to pay for college and how to live on a reasonable budget,” he says. “A college education should be considered an investment in one’s self.”
To graduate without student loan debt, a student must be persistent.
“One of the biggest mistakes I see students make is to not continue to seek scholarship opportunities while in college,” Glover says. “Students usually do a good job leading into their first year in college. However, a college degree is a multi-year investment, and students need to continue to apply for both federal financial aid and scholarships year after year to ensure they can graduate on time and with little or no debt.”
In school, students can help control costs. While the college lifestyle is not particularly extravagant, budgeting while in school can help busy students keep track of where they are financially. Zehnder recommends www.oklahomamoneymatters.org, the Oklahoma Money Matters site, for budgeting and saving tips. Also, fixing on a major as soon as possible cuts costs – students who know what degree they want and stick to it won’t enroll in unnecessary classes. Additionally, certain degrees may also have specific programs to help. OU’s College of Education is establishing a Debt Forgiveness Program for its teaching graduates in such “high-need” areas as math, science and special education to encourage them to continue teaching in Oklahoma.
But no matter the price of higher education, many agree that college is still worth it.
“I believe the cost of an education at a college or university should be an important consideration for what college or university students choose to attend, but (cost) should not discourage a student from pursuing a college degree altogether,” Glover says. “Investing in a college education is a wise decision. Various studies have demonstrated the numerous long-term benefits of earning