June 23--Amanda Carroll has been able to work hard and pay for her college tuition at Middle Georgia State College without taking on any debt.
Still, the 26-year-old from Macon knows there are graduates across the country worried about paying back tens of thousands of dollars in student loans.
"I know students already that are talking they are $10,000, $11,000, $12,000 in debt going here," Carroll said of some Middle Georgia State students. "It's rough because everybody is not getting out of college and finding a job, and their tuition debt is still due when they are done. I have a sister now, and she's working on paying off a couple loans. She just finished her teaching degree, and she is stressing because that adds an extra $300 to $400 to her bills every month."
Today, 71 percent of those earning a bachelor's degree graduate with an average of $29,400 in debt, according to a recent White House news release.
"While most students are able to repay their loans, many feel burdened by debt, especially as they seek to start a family, buy a home, launch a business or save for retirement," the release stated.
Earlier this month, President Barack Obama directed the U.S. Secretary of Education to expand the Pay As You Earn option for an estimated 5 million student loan borrowers. The program caps loan payments at 10 percent of a borrowers monthly income.
Carroll has been working on her psychology degree since 2009 and expects to graduate with her bachelor's from Middle Georgia State in 2015.
She said earning her four-year degree without taking on debt will allow her to consider pursuing a master's degree.
In Georgia, the average loan debt for graduates of a four-year institution in 2012 was $23,089, according to data from the Project on Student Debt. That amount was $34,368 for graduates at Wesleyan College, $19,852 at Georgia College & State University, $8,263 at Fort Valley State University and $31,488 at Mercer University.
The average student loan debt of Middle Georgia State College graduates was not immediately available, but tuition there for 15 credit hours costs students about $1,900 per semester.
"Middle Georgia State College has taken a great deal of care in ensuring that tuition and fees are structured as minimally as they possibly can, because we want to be affordable and we want to be an access institution for this region," said Lee Ann Kirkland, director of financial aid at the college.
Carroll's psychology of languages classmate Kesley Buice, 22, said she has taken out loans but has been able to pay them back almost immediately after each semester. Still, she said she can understand how a graduate with a lot of debt might delay longer making major life decisions than graduates without debt.
"I would definitely put off starting a family and buying my own house because that's more debt added on top of your current debt, and you won't have extra money to provide the life you want to give your children," Buice said.
Kodia Patrick, 27, graduated from Middle Georgia State's psychology program in 2012 and is working on his master's degree in education from Liberty University's online program. He is currently deferring payments on his undergraduate loans, which total about $6,000, he said.
He's thankful for Middle Georgia State's affordability.
"It's not a chump education by far," Patrick said. "When you come to Middle Georgia State, you are going to get a quality education that is worth every penny of that loan you take out."
A high tuition, high value school
Penny Elkins said she grew up in a working-class family, the daughter of a trucker. She said she's very conscious about the impact of loan burdens on Mercer University students.
"Our No. 1 priority at Mercer is this issue," said Elkins, the senior vice president for enrollment management. "We are very purposefully and strategically trying to do everything we can to make the Mercer education accessible and affordable for students."
A private university, Mercer undergraduate tuition is set at about $32,000 per year. Although tuition is high, the university ranks second in the South in terms of value, according to U.S. News & World Report. The total net cost for a student who receives the average amount of financial aid in 2012-2013 at Mercer was $23,486 for the year, according to the magazine.
According to the best value ranking methodology, the higher quality of the program and the lower the cost, the better the deal.
Though tuition has increased by about 2 percent per year, Elkins said, the average amount of student debt that graduates leave Mercer with has actually decreased in the last two years. The average loan debt of graduates dropped from more than $30,000 in 2011 to about $29,000 in 2013.
Mercer also has updated its financial aid process and informational material in the past two years to make sure students are clear on the costs of attendance.
"On the front end before these students ever come to campus in the fall, we go through a series of meetings with families," Elkins said. "We're not setting these families up for failure. This is an ethical obligation."
In addition to controlling tuition costs and providing financial counseling, Mercer is looking to expand opportunities for students who may be deterred from applying to the university due to costs.
Elkins cited the full-tuition scholarship, named after Macon resident Benjy Griffith III, that has been available since 2011 to midstate high school students who would not be able to afford tuition otherwise.
"When I look at these young men and women, I'm thinking about my own path," Elkins said. "We are addressing this issue head on and have a real passion to make that Mercer education accessible for all."
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