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Colleges now graded on students' debt burden
Online scorecards rate higher education based on costs, loan data
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Pell grants and federal student loans

Federal Pell grants, unlike loans, do not have to be repaid. These funds help about 5.4 million full-time and part-time college and vocational school students nationally. Today, the Pell program assists undergraduates of low-income families.

For the current academic year, the maximum award amount is $5,775, depending on financial need and cost of attendance.

Federal student loans, meanwhile, are typically capped at $27,000 for four years.

Colleges and universities typically have been ranked on their academic achievements, social life and postgraduate offerings.

But with student debt growing at significant rates in recent years, a new federal website launched by the Obama Administration and the Department of Education looks to change the way prospective students rate their choices.

In 2013, 69 percent of graduates from public and private nonprofit colleges had student debt, with an average of $28,400 owed in federal and private loans, according to the Institute for College Access & Success.

The difficulty some students face in paying off that debt has been compounded by the ups and downs of the economy, low wages and modest job growth.

Ryan Little Eagle Molina, a fifth-year student at the University of North Georgia, said he has subsidized loans and the Pell grant. But it’s not enough to cover the costs of an education.

“When I first started school, I was actually homeless,” Molina said. “I couldn’t even afford to stay anywhere because I was trying to stay in school. The only reason that changed is because a friend took me in.”

Molina said he has “maybe enough aid to cover classes,” but he only takes as many classes each semester as he can cover.

“The truth about aid is there’s not enough there,” he said. “And when you look at the amount of students coming in, there’s some for you in your freshman year, maybe. But after that? Nothing.”

A number of scholarships are available through the university, according to Kate Maine, associate vice president of university relations at UNG.

“Very often, donors will set conditions on scholarships,” Maine said. “For example, we have a lot for the Corps of Cadets. ... There are many scholarships available, but not as many as we’d like, and that’s something we’ve been working to increase over the last few years.”

Molina said he wants to major in music, but the closest program UNG has is a film program. He would transfer to another school — and has had opportunities to do so — but he can’t afford it.

Molina said the idea of paying off his student debt, while affording future necessities, “is overwhelming.”

“They say, ‘Well you agreed to get money,’ but the problem is, you’re spending so much more to pay back what you took out, just to go to school,” he said.

Meanwhile, Rebecca Pool, junior in the College of Science and Mathematics at UNG, is more optimistic. Pool said she receives both Hope and the Pell grant, because Hope doesn’t cover everything.

Pool said investing in students is investing in the future.

“I look at the grant as an investment,” she said. “I felt I was investing in my education now to stimulate the economy in the future.”

Pool hopes to earn her doctorate in psychology, and she said the Pell “encouraged her to do well throughout school.”

The College Scorecard provides cost of attendance figures, data on debt, graduation rates and other factors from 2013 to help students determine their best fit for higher learning.

A complimentary database from ProPublica, an independent nonprofit newsroom based in New York, reveals average student debt for Pell grant recipients — low-income students  and their ability to pay it off.

But there are a few caveats and exceptions to the data that administrators at local colleges and universities have identified.

Here’s a look at the student financial status of the region’s top three schools:

University of North Georgia

The University of North Georgia has an enrollment of 14,502 students across its many campuses. According to federal data, the number of students receiving Pell grants is 37.9 percent, while 38.6 percent of students in all receive some form of federal aid.

The data also only accounts for those receiving federal aid.

While the in-state tuition is about $16,525, low-income students pay about $14,400, a 13 percent discount.

The median federal debt of all graduates is $16,473, while that number falls to $8,763 for Pell recipients.

About 86 percent pay off their debt, though that rate is slightly lower for Pell recipients.

The school has a 9.2 percent default rate among students.

“We support measures that help students and their families make informed decisions about their college choices,” Maine said. “However, we are concerned that some of the information presented in the College Scorecard is based on incomplete data and does not fulfill this goal.”

One of the caveats that concerns UNG officials is that the data available accounts only for first-time, full-time students, and therefore doesn’t include students who have transferred, part-timers and associate degree students.

Officials also question the wage data provided, which is calculated for all graduates rather than by program of study.

“By placing such a heavy emphasis on salary levels as a measure of success, the findings present a very narrow view of higher education outcomes,” Maine said.

UNG reports that students with federal loans graduated with an average of $11,995 in debt. And about half of all students leave with no debt at all.

And the non-repayment rate does not account for things like military deferment, school officials said.

Lanier Technical College

There are 3,227 students enrolled at Lanier Technical College, with 53.4 percent of students receiving Pell grants.

The in-state tuition is $11,289, but low-income students (from families earning less than $30,000 in annual income) paid $4,652 on average, a 59 percent discount.

The median federal debt of graduates was not available, but about 79 percent of graduates pay down their debt.

Default rates also are not available.

“This affirms one of the messages we regularly share regarding the value of technical education,” Lanier Tech President Ray Perren said. “As the report shows, our graduates typically have no school-related debt when they leave Lanier Tech.”

Perren said the school prides itself on providing career-oriented educational programs that lead to employment.

“Last year, 99.9 percent of our graduates were either employed or continued their education,” he added. “93.6 percent of our graduates were employed in jobs that are directly related to their program of study.”

Brenau University

Brenau University has an enrollment of 1,683, with 52.1 percent of students receiving Pell grants, and 74.6 percent of students receiving any federal aid.

In-state tuition is $34,107, but just $13,602 for low-income students, a 60 percent discount.

The median federal debt of all graduates is about $29,000, but just $20,191 for Pell grantees.

The university has a default rate of 5 percent three years after graduation, while 79 percent of students are currently paying down their debt.

“Brenau is running very close to national averages in most categories but, at 5 percent, we are well below the national and state average and the average for all private schools in the default rate,” said university spokesman David Morrison. “We’re below average on costs and above average on income after graduation.”

Morrison said the university’s endowment helps reduce costs for students through direct scholarships or by offsetting operational costs that might otherwise be built into tuition costs.

“In addition to federal and state assistance, as well as scholarships and support from other entities for specific students, Brenau spends about 20 percent of its annual operating budget primarily for financial assistance to undergraduate students,” Morrison said. “In the past decade, in particular, as economic pressures forced colleges and universities throughout the nation to increase tuition and fees dramatically, Brenau kept those costs down as much as possible.”

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