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Tuesday, July 22, 2014 | Last updated: 6:40pm

UA students struggle with post-grad debt



As student enrollment and tuition costs continue to rise, more students are graduating with the burden of student loan debt. Despite the increases, the UA does little to educate students about budgeting or paying back student loans, leaving many to face their financial struggles alone.

“It really comes down to funding,” said Jennifer Miller, a senior program coordinator for the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid.

The vast majority of financial aid that the UA receives comes from the federal government, Miller said. If the federal government does not implement any kind of additional programs to help students with their debt post-graduation, the responsibility falls on the university.

“The University of Arizona, just like all other institutions right now across the states, are doing the best that they can with limited resources,” Miller said.

Over the last five years, student loans have made up the largest type and source of financial aid for the Arizona University System, with the amount increasing by 90 percent, according to the Arizona Board of Regents’ Student Financial Aid Report for fiscal year 2012.

According to the same report, the average undergraduate debt has increased by 26 percent, from $17,600 to $22,200, while the average graduate debt has increased by 40 percent, from $34,300 to $48,000.

Depending on their financial circumstances, some students may face more debt than others.

Faces of student debt

Lauren Garner, a retailing and consumer science senior, estimated that she will owe more than $100,000 upon graduation, including subsidized, unsubsidized and bank loans.

Garner said she feels stressed about her debt, but that her goal is to have a job or an internship by the time she graduates.

“I think that’s my biggest worry right now — being in so much debt,” Garner said. “Yes, I have a degree, but if I don’t have a job, I don’t have a way of paying it off.”

Garner is currently paying out-of-state tuition and funds her education on her own. After attending classes at the UA, she decided to switch her major; as a result, she had to take out more loans and stay in school an extra year.

Garner said that other students facing large amounts of debt should learn to budget wisely.

“I always buy things when they are on sale,” Garner said. “I pay attention when I go to the grocery store … Even things from, like, walking to school or finding people to get rides [from] … It all adds
up.”

Eric Rosenthal, a business sophomore, estimated that he will be in approximately $60,000 of debt upon graduation. Like Garner, Rosenthal is also an out-of-state student who funds his own education. He said he chose to come to the UA because he felt it was the best fit. Although he is facing a larger-than-average amount of debt, he said he is not worried yet.

“It’s there, but it doesn’t affect me in any way until I have to pay it back,” Rosenthal said.

Rosenthal plans to start his own business and said he feels confident he will be able to pay the debt back.

“I do put away some money every month … I’ve been building that since I was like 16 years old,” Rosenthal said. “I’m trying to keep saving … so that I have some money when I do graduate.”

However, not all students are able to save while attending school.

Miller said the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid gives students the best aid package it can, including grants and scholarships from the UA, as well as any kinds of grants students are eligible for at the federal or state level.

Providing students with assistance in finances

A new financial literacy program is in the works that would teach students how to budget better and avoid taking out too many loans, according to Miller. However, the structure of the program is still being created. Anything with start-up costs has been placed on the back burner, she added.

“Every single person that works in the financial aid office has some form of student debt, either from their undergraduate studies or their graduate studies,” Miller said. “We all understand where
students are coming from. We’re in the same boat.”

Joel Torres, a senator for the Associated Students of the University of Arizona who also works for the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid as a customer service team lead, said he hears of
students struggling to figure out how to pay for college on a daily basis.

Recently, Torres introduced a new financial aid workshop to help students learn how to apply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid in a timely manner.

“[Running for the senate,] I couldn’t promise more money. I couldn’t promise … to try to get more scholarships,” Torres said. “But what I could promise was my knowledge in how to teach students how to promptly go about applying for the FAFSA … so they can see how much … federal money they’re eligible for.”

A program that does help some students avoid debt is the Arizona Assurance Scholars Program, which aims to enable low-income Arizona residents to attend a university they wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise, according to Arezu Corella, assistant director at the Office of Academic Success and Achievement.

Students who qualify are provided money for tuition, fees, housing, food and books through scholarships, grants and a work-study program or job component, where part of their funding comes from having a job, Corella said.

Students with financial obligations other than the essential expenses may take out some loans, but their debt will still be less than the national average.

However, the program does not offer any assistance for students trying to pay their loans back after graduation.

“We’re definitely available to help them with figuring out how to manage their financial aid … and how they can budget their money while they’re in college,” Corella said. “We don’t offer specifically … workshops or things like that. It’s actually something we want to develop for the future.”

As of now, the program offers assistance on an individual basis.

“We know tuition will continue to go up. It’s not likely that it will ever go down,” Miller said. “If federal programs aren’t going to meet the needs of families anymore, the UA is doing the best that we can to pick up the slack.”

By the numbers

49 percent
Percentage of financial aid awards from loans

$22,200
Amount of debt at graduation for average undergraduate student

$48,000
Amount of debt at graduation for average graduate student


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