High student loan percentage at GJ college campuses

Western Colorado Community College has the highest portion of students borrowing money for their education of any two-year public school in Colorado, according to a new Colorado Department of Higher Education report.

The 2011-12 Financial Aid Report, which tracks student loan, grant and scholarship information at the state’s public institutions, reported 70.3 percent of WCCC students have student loans. The average loan debt for WCCC students who borrow was $17,291 last school year, according to the report.

Curt Martin, financial aid director for both WCCC and Colorado Mesa University, said the average loan debt for WCCC students may be inflated because some students who borrowed enough for a four-year degree at Colorado Mesa changed their minds and earned a two-year degree at the community college. The community college and Colorado Mesa also have “very high-need populations” for financial aid, according to Martin.

The average loan debt was $25,045 last year for Colorado Mesa bachelor’s degree students, and 69.3 percent of CMU students had loans — the third-highest percentage among Colorado’s four-year schools.

The financial aid package students receive from Colorado Mesa or WCCC covers as much of a student’s tuition, room and board costs as possible with scholarships and grants, then fills the remaining amount they need with loan offers. Martin said student need for education or living costs and subsequent borrowing has increased every year since 2008 at both WCCC and Colorado Mesa because of hard economic times.

Martin predicted the amount students need will decline in the coming years as the economy improves. But he still worries about student default on loans. That’s why Colorado Mesa used a grant to hire a loan default-prevention counselor this fall. The school plans to introduce a cohesive financial literacy curriculum for any interested professors in 2013 and a letter is being developed to send to students stating how much they need to earn after graduation to successfully pay off their loans. The university will soon roll out Academic Works, a software program that makes it easy for students to search and apply for scholarships.

“We saw some students not going for scholarships (when they needed more money) because they thought it was easier to increase the amount of their loans. All you have to do is accept it” to borrow more, Martin said.

Colorado Mesa freshmen Jamie Chambers and Gabriel Chavez said they both rely on student loans for more than half of their college expenses. Chavez said it’s easy to get loans and he has “a good amount” of them.

“Hopefully if my career plays out in criminal justice it’ll be OK,” he said, referring to re-paying his debt.

Chambers, who does not have a major, said she is worried “big time” about paying back her loans. Colorado Mesa was cheaper than other colleges she considered, though, and she said the price for a degree is worth it to her.

“It is a lot of money but education to me is super important,” she said.


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