How Do Schools Help Students Navigate Financial Aid and Tuition? Students and Administrators Share Their Solutions
This podcast episode is sponsored by Inversant.
1.4 trillion dollars.
That’s how much Americans owe in student debt, according to a 2017 Experian report released in August.
That number, 1.4 trillion dollars, carries significant economic weight. But that debt on the individual, can be crushing, with an average of $34,000 per borrower.
But how are schools preparing students for responsibly handling—or avoiding—this debt?
In the third episode of our series, “Challenges and Solutions for Student Financial Aid & Debt,” we speak with students and school administrators about reducing individual student loan debt, and helping students understand financial aid.
Let’s start first with two students: Jenny Roeper, a history major, and Ariana Martinez, a social work major and resident assistant (RA). Jenny and Ariana both work at the “Navigation Center” at Salem State University in Salem, MA. It’s a space on campus where students can get financial help and answers — or documents, like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — or FAFSA.
According to Jenny, “A lot of students know about FAFSA, you know, the federal student aid, but they don’t know how to fill it out. They don’t know what documents they need present with them to fill it out, what tax forms they need, what information they need from their parents.”
In her role at the Navigation Center (called the “Nav Center” for short), Jenny and other student workers help their peers to understand things like the FAFSA. But it’s also a place where students are encouraged to build muscles to help themselves, peers, or family members.
“We’ll just kind of guide them in a way that they won’t need to keep coming back to the office, we’ ll train them on the Navigator, so that they can be more independent because that’s the whole goal of our office and of being in college — to prepare someone for the real world,” says Jenny.
Ariana Martinez says sometimes it’s as simple as showing students how knowing the ropes can benefit them in the short term and the long term — like how to pay bills online.
“Sometimes students will come in with […] checks and debit cards and all this…and we’re just like…you could just do that on your Navigator, from your comfortable bed…You don’t have to come in here and do that. But then that allows us to train them on like how you would do it in the future.”
This kind of center isn’t unique to Salem State. North Shore Community College is also aiming to demystify the financial aid process with more direct outreach.
According to Stephen Creamer, assistant vice president of student financial services at NSCC:
“As far as financial literacy, we’ve started reaching out to students who are currently enrolled, letting them know how much they borrowed, where they can see that information, as well as reaching out to our alums and our students who didn’t stay and letting them know how much they borrowed, where they can get more information on how much [is] the burden and the status of their loans.”
Financial literacy, especially for students, doesn’t just stop at direct school costs. NSCC encourages students to use a program called Salt, “a money management tool that was developed by American Student Assistance.”
Stephen says that many community colleges today are trying to promote financial awareness within their student populations.
“And it can it can be financial awareness that is greater than just education. It really can help them with life — budgeting and credit card management and other things like that,” says Stephen.
One piece of advice for students when it comes to tackling debt: make sure you’re taking advantage of all the benefits that are eligible to you.
Bonnie Galinski of Salem State University says one state program that started last fall is the Commonwealth Commitment. With the Commonwealth Commitment, students can lock in tuition and fees if they are entering certain majors.
“Students need to have a 3.0,” says Bonnie. “They need to register for 15 credits. They need to be taking the classes consecutively in semesters.”
“So, it will help to reduce the cost of education, if they’re able to go from the community college to the four-year school by using the Commonwealth Commitment program. So it’s a great option for students that allows them to lock into the tuition, keeps them on track to graduate in four years, so that they’re spending less on their education.”
Another piece of advice: apply early for help. School officials say students who apply for the FAFSA for example, often get the most generous aid if they apply before May 1st.
Both Bonnie and Stephen say that there are many tools out there, but starting the conversation with students early is essential. Bonnie says that outreach begins as soon as a student is accepted at Salem State.
“So we have a Twitter account,” says Bonnie. “We also have a Facebook page.”
“So when a student’s admitted to Salem State, we actually have them join the Facebook page. And there we will answer any questions that they might have. And usually right before the beginning of each semester, a lot of information, a lot of questions come about financial aid in paying your bill.”
Of course, the school still contacts students the old-fashioned way: by email.
“We also have a series of email communications that go out all of our communications aligned with the academic calendar and what items need to be done or barriers that a student might face before that,” says Bonnie.
Stephen says if you play your cards right, fill out your FAFSA, and go to community college before a four year institution, you could get a bachelor’s degree for 10-thousand dollars, or less.
“Well, under the perfect circumstances, a student could obtain a bachelor’s degree from Salem, and a two-year degree from North Shore for less than $10,000,” says Stephen.
All in all, handling debt can be another lesson for students. Stephen says that the financial literacy that comes with responsibly handling student debt, can actually help students with other parts of their life.
“It can […] be financial awareness that is greater than just education.”
This podcast episode is sponsored by Inversant, a Boston-based nonprofit that helps lower- to middle-income families plan and save for college.
If you would like to donate to Inversant, your donation will be matched by an anonymous donor until October 31, 2017. To learn more, visit Inversant.org/doublecampaign.
To learn more about how Inversant can help you prepare for your child’s future, visit inversant.org/educationlibrary.
Listen to the full series, “Challenges and Solutions for Student Financial Aid & Debt.”
Hannah Nyren is the General Manager of EdTech Times. A Texan by birth but a Bostonian at heart, Hannah is an educational writer, AmeriCorps alum, and one-time StartupWeekend EDU (SWEDU) winning team member. She started her career at a Pearson-incubated edtech startup, but has since covered travel, food & culture, and even stonemasonry in addition to education.