By Michael Banks
Grace Colson applied to college knowing that an undergraduate degree would be an endeavor that she alone would be responsible for funding. While support from academic awards like the Georgia-based Zell Miller Scholarship make that responsibility a little less daunting, it does not eliminate the financial burden of college entirely.
In addition to scholarships and working a part-time job, Colson –who is now in her second year as an intended finance major at the University of Georgia – additionally funds her education with the help of student loans.
“Even before I started applying to colleges, I always knew that I was going to fund school on my own and that student loans might be a part of that,” she said.
Students across the country are eligible for public, federally funded student loans by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). FAFSA determines an applicant’s eligibility for a variety of direct, subsidized and unsubsidized loans provided by the US Department of Education.
Private loans are a financing option which can supplement federal loans, an option that is typically more expensive and with higher interest rates.
Having started out her college career at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Colson has funded her education with a private loan in addition to a federally funded Parent PLUS loan in her first year due to the higher cost of living in a city like Atlanta.
“Living expenses are a lot lower here in Athens, and it was also much easier to find a job,” she said.
The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS) found that 56% of college graduates in the state of Georgia have student loan debt averaging more than $25,000. But despite a majority of students in the state taking out loans, Colson has seen firsthand that there is plenty of stigma surrounding the financing option.
“If my friends find out that I do have student loans their first response is something along the lines of ‘I’m so sorry. I couldn’t imagine dealing with that,’ but the reality is [loans] are set up with a plan to pay them off,” she said.
Student loans take anywhere from 10 to 30 years to pay off, according TICAS. Despite the fact that most come with repayment terms and conditions, the commitment is what makes loans daunting.
“There is a stigma because borrowing money is seen as a means of last resort, which leads to financial stress on the part of the borrower,” said Swarn Chatterjee, head of the Department of Financial Planning in UGA’s College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
The U.S. Department of Education is currently rolling out one-time student loan debt relief, an initiative passed by the Biden-Harris Administration to mitigate the financial and psychological burdens of student loan debt. The relief program provides up to $20,000 in debt relief depending on Pell Grant status and income requirements.
While programs like these will assist with publicly-funded loans, they do not apply to private financing.
According to Chatterjee, tackling private student loan debt requires an individual assessment of one’s financial goals post-graduation on a case-by-case basis.
“Assessing financial goals through the lens of student loan contributions is important,” Chatterjee said. “If a graduate is starting out in their career with lower income, the more of that income contributes to paying off student loans, so that may mean putting certain milestones like buying a house or owning a car on hold.”
Michael Banks is a journalism student at the University of Georgia