Students are borrowing more money than ever, according to a recent study by the Institute for College Access and Success. On average, the class of 2013 graduated $28,400 in debt nationwide.
For Cincinnati native and University of Hartford senior Olivia Alsip, those numbers are more than just a statistic. They’re part of her story.
“Everyone I knew was going to Ohio State,” said Alsip. “I just wanted something different and something new.”
And she’s the first to admit how proud she is of those differences. Neither of her working-class parents has a college degree, but Alsip wanted to break the mold. She eventually found – and funded – her way through a higher education as a double major in psychology and sociology.
“When I see people getting subjugated or marginalized, which you see a lot in the social sciences when you study them, that creates a need [for me] to do something about it,” said Alsip.
Yet one thing she can’t change is how she looks on paper.
Like almost all high school seniors, Alsip had to file her Free Application of Federal Student Aid – her FAFSA – as a dependent. So the numbers on her FAFSA reflect her parents’ financial profile, even though they don’t pay her tuition.
“While it’s not the best tool, it is the most comprehensive thing we have at this point,” said Jennifer Horner, the Director of Financial Aid at the University of Hartford. “We leave nothing on the table. Every amount of grant money that we have to give out, we put towards our students.”
Still, she admits the university can’t meet the financial needs of all its students, adding that private schools with lower endowments face a unique challenge since they don’t receive nearly as much state funding compared to public schools.
“We’ve lost millions, literally millions,” said Horner. “The University of Hartford was at a high of over $3 million. We’re down to $1.4 million from the state in our grant funding, and it just continues going along that path.”
But with student debt at an all-time high nationwide for both public and private universities, students have to pay close attention when deciding how they’ll pay for school, regardless of where they decide to go.
“Any hobby or event [students] do probably has a scholarship or grant attached to it,” said Student Loan Debt Lawyer Josh Cohen.
Those scholarships even range anywhere from kids who come from migrant farmworker families to those who live near a Nordstrom store. Cohen suggests students first check to see if they can earn money they don’t need to pay back.
Also, touch base with your school right now, as the enrollment deadline approaches. Sometimes aid money frees up at the last minute if other students decide to study somewhere else.
But those who do need to take out a loan have options: federal loans and private loans.
“From where I sit, if you need more than federal money, be very, very careful,” said Cohen. “A private loan is not dischargeable in bankruptcy. With a federal loan, you can always have a payment based on your income.”
In other words, you could negotiate affordable payment, even if you were unemployed.
It's an important detail, according to the State Office of Higher Education. Student Financial Aid Director Mark French says on average, student loan default rates in Connecticut have gone up in the past five to seven years.
“What that should tell us is students really need to be aware of what they’re getting into when they’re borrowing the loan,” said French. “You really do have to speak up if you need help.”
Horner agrees, adding administrators know the FAFSA doesn’t always paint the whole picture.
“[Call us] if there’s something really going on that you need your financial aid office to know about that the FAFSA doesn’t reflect, say, for example, that a parent lost their job since filing your FAFSA form,” said Horner. “Let us know about that. Sometimes we can qualify you for more financial aid because of that.”
As for Alsip, she has worked 60-hour weeks on top of going to school full-time, just to graduate with a relatively average debt, at $40,000. She’s in the process of filling out her FAFSA for next year, and since she’ll enroll as a graduate student, she can claim herself as independent and qualify for more aid.
“Which is crazy considering that I’ve been living on my own and paying all my bills for literally years now,” said Alsip.