STUDENTLOANS: Illustration of a graduation cap made from dollar bills. With Business story STUDENTLOANS, which moved April 24. Sam Ward, USA TODAY. 48p x 5-3/8'. Color. RGB JPEG image.
Student debt has been in the news a lot lately. Sixty-seven percent of Wisconsin baccalaureate graduates incur debt. For the class of 2011, the average debt in our state is $26,238, similar to the national average. Since 2009, debt has been increasing 5 percent annually.
However, college costs should be compared to the benefits of holding a bachelor's degree, which are considerable in terms of salary and job security. But students still should consider how they might reduce costs, and there is much that can be done to lessen their debt load before they graduate.
High school students planning for college are in a great position to plan ahead and take academically rigorous courses that prepare them for college. It also makes good economic sense not to take a course in college that they could have taken for free in high school.
Some students avoid difficult courses in their senior year of high school to keep up their grade-point average - but that might cost them in the long run academically if they are not ready for college.
There is still much students can do to cut costs once they begin their college education.
Costs will be lower the less time spent in college. Students' goal should be to graduate in four years.
Students do not need to declare a major at the start of college, but having one or two ideas in mind will help with course selection. It's a good idea to have a close working relationship with an academic adviser right from the start of their college career, which will save money by eliminating unnecessary course credits.
Another way to reduce costs is by living at home and commuting, saving on board and lodging.
Tuition costs at the University of Wisconsin Marathon County are lower than anywhere else in the UW System. Savings in tuition for two years at UWMC would amount to $6,118 compared to average tuition at four-year campuses. If we account for room and board, the total savings would be $19,878 in two years.
But while we are more affordable, the quality and college experience are no different than any other UW school. Indeed, students who stay with us for two years graduate after transfer at rates at least as high as the students they join at the four-year campuses.
While in college and before considering going into debt, students should remember that they might be able to work part time (preferably on campus) to offset some college expenses. But a word of caution to those who decide to take a part-time job on campus: Don't let it affect your academic success, because if it does, that might cost you more than a modest loan will.
Even if students follow some of this advice, there is still a good chance they will need some financial aid by the time they graduate from college.
Financial aid helps to bridge the gap between what students and their families can pay and the cost of education. It comes in various forms. Grants and scholarships are considered "gift aid" because they generally do not have to be repaid. Loans and student employment are considered "self-help aid" because loans have to be repaid and by working, students earn money for educational expenses.
The only way to determine what types and amount of aid students are eligible for is by completing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, available at www.fafsa.gov. (Never pay anyone for access to a scholarship or any other such program - these are scams.) If students want the greatest amount of gift aid, the form should be submitted by April 1.
To learn more about the FAFSA application process, UWMC is hosting a Financial Aid Night from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday in the Terrace Room at the university campus, 518 S. Seventh Ave. in Wausau. Student Services personnel will be available to answer financial aid-related questions. Students can register or get more information about the event by calling 715-261-6235.