Coloradans have less college debt than most Americans, according to a report by LendEDU.com, a student-loan website.
Colorado borrowers have an average of $26,095 in student loan debt, the 14th-lowest average amount of all states, according to the report. About 56 percent of the 233,000 people in Colorado’s 2015 graduating class had debt, according to the report, which was released Feb. 23.
Just less than 6 percent of borrowers in the class of 2015 defaulted on student loans in Colorado. The data for the class were the most recent available.
More than 43 million Americans have college debt, with an average of about $28,400 per borrower, according to LendEDU. The total outstanding student debt is $1.4 trillion, and the federal student loan default rate is 11.8 percent.
Local default ratesMonica Hardwick, who has worked in the financial aid office at Pueblo Community College for 10 years, said recently that she sees a fair number of students who don’t know much about financial aid.
“I haven’t seen much of a change in terms of knowledge of students,” she said.
Southwest Colorado Community College, which has campuses in Mancos and Durango, is a branch of PCC. Hardwick, the college’s director of financial aid, is based in Pueblo.
The total amount of financial aid awarded to students has decreased in the past few years, but that could be attributable to a drop in enrollment, she said.
For the 2014 fiscal year, the median amount that PCC students borrowed was $11,500, Hardwick said. About 20 percent of those students have defaulted on their loans, although the default rate has decreased in recent years, Hardwick said.
About 9 percent of students who defaulted were SCCC students, Hardwick said. Most students pay back their loans through a 10-year repayment plan.
At Fort Lewis College in Durango, the default rate for the 2016-17 year is 9.2 percent, said spokesman Mitch Davis. The three-year average default rate for the college from 2014-17 is 9.5 percent.
The average amount of debt for the 2014 graduating class at FLC was $19,507, according to The Institute for College Access and Success, a nonprofit that researches higher education institutions. About 62 percent of 2014 FLC graduates had debt.
Administrators try to make education affordable at PCC, Hardwick said. Many students qualify for financial aid based on need, including federal Pell grants.
With the change in administration in Washington, including new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, Hardwick said school officials are waiting to see what happens with policies related to higher education.
‘The little things add up’Montezuma-Cortez High School counselor Amanda Higgins said lots of students who consider college have a plan and have discussed paying for school with their parents.
Some students are knowledgeable about college costs, but some don’t think about paying for things other than tuition, such as books, room and board, class fees and meal plans.
“The little things add up,” Higgins said. “It’s the other costs that are all of a sudden a shock.”
M-CHS senior Marcus Amrine said most students think first about applying for college admission, and figure out how they will pay for it later.
“Getting your applications out is the most important,” Amrine said.
It’s helpful to plan application deadlines for schools and scholarships, and juniors can start applying for scholarships, he said.
Senior Kate Treinen said she considered room and board costs and tuition, but didn’t account for extra class fees and insurance costs. Before planning for college, she didn’t realize that many schools offer scholarships for incoming students.
Treinen also emphasized the importance of keeping your options open.
“Looking at a broad spectrum of schools is helpful,” she said. “I’ve changed my mind a lot about what I want to do during my senior year.”
She said students should apply for scholarships even if they think they won’t get them. High tuition costs were a barrier for some schools, she said.
Students create road mapHiggins begins working with students when they’re in eighth grade. She helps them develop a four-year high school plan based on their interests and career goals.
“We’re trying to really make high school meaningful for students so they’ll want to come, and they’ll have fun,” she said.
Incoming high school seniors choose from three developmental tracks – college, workforce or military. Most choose college or workforce, and a handful pursue military service. Every senior creates a résumé, she said.
Students considering college complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and Higgins helps families fill out the form, she said. After completing the FAFSA, students receive an aid report that includes their expected family contribution.
“We encourage students to really study those aid packages,” Higgins said.
Education optionsHiggins is trying to change students’ perception of college, she said. College doesn’t just mean a four-year degree at a major institution, she said. For some students, a two-year degree or a community college may be the better option.
She encourages students to consider options close to Cortez, such as SCCC and San Juan College in Farmington. She also encourages kids to take a survey on www.mynextmove.org that helps them pick the field they want to enter for college or the workforce.
Some students who attend a large university can’t find a job in their field when they graduate, and they have trouble paying back their loans. School counselors could do a better job of helping students understand the responsibility that comes with loans, Higgins said.
The Colorado Department of Education has excellent financial aid resources, she said, and students and parents shouldn’t be afraid to call a financial aid officer at their chosen school.
“It’s an ongoing process with college and financial aid,” Higgins said. “All of that is constantly changing.”