Americans owe over $1.4 trillion in student loan debt. Undergraduates around the country, especially those from low-income backgrounds, struggle to pay back their student loans. Still, students feel that the benefits of a degree outweigh these enormous costs; they must go college.
To ensure proper returns on this expensive investment, students must utilize all the resources at their disposal. This means staying informed about financial aid and long-term debt at the onset of their college careers.
I sat down with Dr. Joe Dobrota, the Director of Financial Aid at William and Mary, to learn more about all the assistance provided by the school.
How do we make sure that students, particularly those with debt, understand what this will mean for their future and how best to manage it?
“Each student pursuing a Federal loan is required to go through an online entrance counseling session. In the session, the student is presented with information about what taking a loan means for them and their financial future. As a student leaves school, they must also go through an exit counseling session. This session focuses more on what the next steps will be once the student leaves school.”
What resources do you provide students to help them manage this?
“One the biggest resources we can provide is information. To this end, staff are available to answer questions related to repaying student loans. For example, we have a staff member assigned to the Law School and she is available on Wednesday afternoons throughout the spring semester for students who have questions about repaying their loans.
Another resource the college has partnered with is known as CashCourse. This is a self-paced online program students can use to learn more about financial literacy, budgeting, etc. Information about the program and other useful financial literacy links can be found [on the financial aid website].”
What advice would you give them for making sure they stay on top of their debt?
“One important thing students can do is to monitor their student loans using the National Student Loan Data System (nslds.ed.gov). This system lists their overall federal borrowing for college, the current servicer of their loans, and contact information. More than likely students have already started to receive some communication from the holder of their loan. It’s important to not ignore it.
They should become familiar with the terminology and website of their servicer. While payments don’t start until six months after leaving school or dropping below a half-time status, the student can setup an account on their servicer’s website now so they can become familiar with the site and receive information in advance of payments.”
How did you personally get involved with financial aid?
“When I was pursuing my master’s degree, I got a student job in the financial aid office of the college I attended. A full-time position opened up and I applied. I was lucky enough to get the job and here I am over 20 years later still loving my work in the field of student financial assistance. It’s an interesting mix of student service, public policy, and technology/systems.”
How do you think the overall system of borrowing and lending for students could be improved?
“One thing that could help with some of the confusion with loans is to consolidate the multiple Federal student loan programs into one program. Currently, students at W&M can receive up to 3 types of loans depending on the results of their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA): Federal Direct Subsidized, Federal Direct Unsubsidized, Federal Perkins. This can sometimes be confusing to families as they think they need to pick between the three programs when they are eligible to receive all three. One of these programs, the Federal Perkins Loan, has been a great resource for W&M students with financial need. This Federal loan program is scheduled to expire in Fall 2017.”
The ubiquity of college degrees should not be the driving force behind a student’s decision to attend college. Rather, each high school graduate must assess his or her own financial situation before committing to a university.
The work done by aid offices around the country provides great opportunity for many students. But more importantly, they ensure that all applicants can make an informed decision.
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