Who's paying the bill? College costs concern students

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Chicago Tribune/TNS
Chicago Tribune/TNS

Who's paying the bill? College costs concern students

by: Deangelo McDaniel | .
The Decatur Daily, Ala. | .
published: October 06, 2015

DECATUR, Ala. (Tribune News Service) — Jaxon Haney and Skyler Smith came to Decatur High School’s college and career fair with a plan.

The best friends said they wanted to find a college both could attend and do so without borrowing money. They accomplished their mission.

Haney and Smith represent a growing trend for high school juniors and seniors who are planning to attend college, school counselors and college recruiters said Wednesday.

“Financial aid has always been a concern, but it’s now clearly above all the other concerns high school students have,” said Kelli King, a recruiter with Northwest-Shoals Community College.

A U.S. Department of Education survey found as many as two-thirds of college graduates with a bachelor’s degree borrowed money to attend college. The same report estimates the cost of college for 2016 graduates will be twice as much as it was two decades ago.

Decatur High counselor Daivon Fouche said students apparently have gotten the message about academic requirements and now are spending more time thinking and talking about financial matters.

“About two years ago, more students started talking about graduating college with no debt,” he said. “I think a lot of them have parents with college debt, and they see their parents struggling.”

The Federal Student Aid program reported debt for college students at $1.5 trillion last year, with the 2015 graduates having $35,051 in student debt on average.

Declining state and federal funding per student, coupled with stagnant wages since the 2008 recession, however, is leaving some families with little choice but to borrow money for their children to attend college.

President Barack Obama recently rolled out an initiative to make community college free or nearly free for students who put in the time to do well.

Haney and Smith said they have read horror stories about people with college debt and are not waiting on some plan from politicians to get them into college.

At Wednesday’s college and career fair, they learned their grade-point averages — both above 3.5 — would allow them to attend Calhoun Community College at almost no cost. They also learned about the state’s articulation program that will permit classes they take at Calhoun to transfer to the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

Smith wants to study aerospace engineering; Haney, computer technology. Both, however, have an interest in designing video games, something UAH offers.

“I was so excited when I learned that we could take a lot of our prerequisite classes at Calhoun,” Haney said. “UAH also has a lot of extracurricular activities for nerds, so we found our match today.”

Decatur Principal Travis Schrimsher and Assistant Principal Fred Abernathy said they brought colleges to the school because students need a plan and many do not attend college and career fairs off campus.

“We get a lot of questions from parents and students about the college process,” Abernathy said. “This format gives students an opportunity to talk as long as they want without feeling rushed.”

More than 25 colleges, branches of the military and financial aid advisers attended the meeting for junior and senior students at Decatur.

Quinton Fletcher, a junior, celebrated his birthday one day before the college fair.

“I’m a year away from becoming an adult, and I realize I need to start thinking serious about what I want to do with my future,” he said. “I’ve learned from being here today that it’s never too early to start planning.”

Fletcher came in looking for information about automotive engineering and wants to attend the University of Alabama at Birmingham or Jacksonville State University.

He left with a handful of pamphlets from other colleges and said he realized there are alternatives he never thought about.

Fouche said he sees students like Fletcher all the time, which is why they are encouraging students and parents to come up with a plan as early as the student’s junior year.

Because of rising college costs, the counselor said more students are taking the junior college route, with the majority of Decatur graduates attending Calhoun.

“A lot of our kids are not ready to leave home for college, so two-year colleges are an alternative,” Fouche said. “But there has to be a plan, both academically and financially.”

©2015 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.)
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