Story by Erin Sastre.
COLUMBIA – As an MU student in the 1990s, Brian Adams did whatever he could to offset the cost of his tuition.
“I counted corn for the USDA and helped teach labs and grade for the Agriculture Mechanization department,” Adams said. Still, by graduation his student loans totaled about $30,000.
Paying off those loans over the course of the next 15 years might have felt like counting kernels of corn, but Adams considers himself lucky compared to today’s graduates.
“It’s a shame, the financial burden on current students,” he said.
Higher tuition means many students are borrowing more than ever to pay for their educations.
The total cost of in-state tuition and fees for MU undergraduate students increased from $7,308 per year in 2006 to $8,989 in 2011, the most recent year for which data was available, according to the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System. For out-of-state students, the total annual cost increased from $16,890 to $21,784.
Interest rates for student loans also have increased. The rate for the 2014-15 school year was 4.66 percent, up 0.8 percentage points, according to the Federal Student Aid Office at the U.S. Department of Education.
Marco Pantoja, director of MU’s Office of Financial Success, said the average MU graduate last year had about $23,000 in student loans.
Tyler Adkisson, who graduates in August with a degree in convergence journalism, has more than double that amount.
“I’m going to pay for half it,” Adkisson said. “I’ll have to pay $27,000 and my parents will pay $27,000. At the end of the day, you have to be an adult and pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
To prepare for repayment, Adkisson started taking jobs during the academic school year to start saving. He worked as a recreation center lifeguard and as a writer for the video news source, Newsy.
“I worked 40 hours a week on top of my education,” Adkisson said. “Some days I had to ask myself, ‘Do I have time to eat or do I have time to do homework?’ I drove myself crazy and felt challenged about time.”
Federal law requires all student loan recipients to complete financial aid counseling before graduating, but the exit interviews, which can be completed online, don’t provide as much information as some students want.
Responding to student requests, MU launched a program in 2013 offering more detailed information and one-on-one counseling for students who wished to take part.
“I just got back from a conference and the financial stress is a huge issue in retention and keeping students in school,” said Pantoja. “We provide exit counseling for graduates to help them learn how to pay off their loans.”
Graduates can benefit from other assistance, such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The program, created in 2007 and expanded significantly since then, eliminates any remaining loan balance after a borrower makes 120 consecutive loan payments while working a qualifying public interest job.
Despite the resources available, many graduates are still unsure of how to get a jump on their payments.
“I don’t even know how I’m going to pay for student loans,” said Alexander Ralph, who graduated MU this year owing about $50,000. “The majority of my education was funded through loans. Only about 15 percent was out of pocket.”
Ralph did share some advice for students concerned with loans during their early college years, though.
“I feel a lot of students stress their freshman and sophomore years about student loans,” he said. “Start saving. You can never save enough money for college.”