Stories

The cost of turning a dream into a degree

It’s widely accepted that in the competitive employment environment, a college degree today is how a high school education was viewed by past generations.

If only it cost the same.

A college degree is more important now more than ever, but it doesn’t mean college is more affordable. In fact, two-thirds of all students graduate college with debt, and we’ve hit the $1 trillion mark for federal student debt in the United States. And while the stories of catastrophic debt (more than $100k) apply to only 1 percent of students, the average student still faces $26,600 in debt after graduation.

So is there a path to a college education that doesn’t come with years of debt repayment and substantially adjusting your budget? Yes. It just takes planning, perseverance and the ability to keep your eye on the prize of getting a degree.

“Making a plan is essential–I didn’t want to get behind the ball,” said Logann Epley, a recent secondary education graduate. “Doing my research ahead of time really improved my ability to move forward.”

Walking Toward Graduation

Epley’s college path is typical to many students. She absorbed a change-of-major, made a 5-year plan work and is now ready to enter the workforce with a freshly printed degree in hand. After starting as a journalism major, Epley switched to education, and just finished her student teaching at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln before graduating earlier this month.

Now, with a teaching job in hand, Epley is starting to size up the financial burden of paying for that education, and the reality of student loans is hitting her head on. But because of her plan, and research, Epley said she is ready for the challenge ahead.

To get to that graduation stage, Epley needed a variety of loans. That included Stafford loans, which are federal loans that can be subsidized or unsubsidized, and Perkins loans. In addition to being provided through the school, and thus repaid to the school, Perkins loans also come with the potential of being forgiven, depending on job placement.

“Some of my loans can be cancelled because I will teach at a Title I school. It was really important for me to teach at a high need school anyway,” she said, “but it’s extra incentive to not have to pay the funds back.”

Students can also cancel Perkins loans if they work full time with special education/disabled individuals, work providing family services in low-income situations or serve as a full-time law enforcement or corrections officer. There are also options for forgiving portions of Perkins loans, including a 70 percent forgiveness for Peace Corps volunteers and 50 percent forgiveness for students who serve in the Armed Forces in areas of hostilities and imminent danger.

READ MORE: Understanding the Types of Student Loans

Adjusting Along the Way

Whitney Carlson also graduated from UNL, but had a much different route to graduation. Carlson didn’t just change majors–she changed schools, changed states, made a stop at a community college and eventually graduated with a degree in journalism. A few scholarships and pell grants softened the blow, but outside of that, Carlson was on her own when figuring out how to make college a financial reality.

“My parents didn’t like talking about finances, so when it was time to pay for my school, a friend talked me through it,” she said. “I got loans through the same place she did because I didn’t know what else to do.”

Her path wasn’t typical, and Carlson admits that she is still fighting the battle to figure out how to transition from student loans to financial stability. But without her ability to find financing through those loans, a college degree would not have been possible.

“I still have loans from my very first semester in college,” Carlson said. “Due to my parents’ financial situation, I wasn’t eligible for much financial aid. I wouldn’t have been able to get my degree without loans, as much as I hate being in debt.”

Carlson has been working since graduation, but recently started sizing up the potential of going back to school for a master’s in public health policy. And while she admits she’s “not a fan” of the cost of the GRE and other admissions hurdles, it’s a reality Carlson knows she must face if she wants to further her education.

After working as a social media specialist for the Chicago Tribune, and even taking a brief stint working with a community education project, Carlson has seen the need for well-educated individuals to help solve society’s growing list of ‘areas of need.’ For Carlson, an education isn’t about clout, notoriety or simply qualifying for the right job.

It’s about shaping the future she wants for the world around her.

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