While a college degree is one path toward improved financial rewards, a diploma often comes with an associated burden — having to chip away at a mountain of accumulated student loan debt.

Nationally, the average college student from the Class of 2016 graduated with $37,000 in college debt, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy with cappex.com, a Chicago-based firm that helps individuals search for data on colleges and scholarships.

For students who attend a commuter campus such as IUPUC in Columbus, the amount of debt students carry depends on how soon they earn their degree, said Marvin Smith, director of student financial services at IUPUI, which keeps track of data at the Columbus campus.

Seventy-three percent of students who graduated from IUPUC in the 2016-17 school year incurred debt, a drop from 87 percent in 2011-12, Smith said.

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A student who graduates in four years from IUPUC graduates with an average debt of $15,881, while someone who takes six years to earn a degree incurs an average debt of $37,435, Smith said.

IUPUC student Sean Halstead doesn’t have that much student loan debt yet, but the junior from Columbus said he worries about being able to pay off the $20,000 in debt he has accumulated so far.

Halstead, who is pursuing bachelor’s degrees in communications and English, lives at home with his parents in an attempt to save some money.

The student said he hopes to identify a good-paying job before he graduates so he can afford his monthly loan repayments. How much that will be is not yet known, however.

Halstead said he chose IUPUC in part because of its size and lower costs compared to other universities he considered such as Ball State and Southern Indiana.

Still, he said taking out federal student loans was his only option to attend college.

“I couldn’t afford to go without the loans,” he said.

Managing expenses

Kyle Hendricks, marketing and communications coordinator with United Way of Bartholomew County, is working to pay off his student loans. He graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington six years ago with a degree in English and faced nearly $20,000 in student loan debt, he said.

Hendricks, who also serves as president of the Columbus Young Professionals organization, was able to help pay for his education with federal Pell grants.

Students who meet financial eligibility requirements can receive up to $5,920 this year in Pell grants, which do not have to be paid back.

Thirty-seven percent of students at the Columbus campus receive them, Smith said.

Hendricks, who has been able to manage his fixed monthly load repayments, said he is considering returning to school to earn a master’s degree.

If he decides to attend graduate school, that would also be funded through federal student loans, he said.

But Hendricks said he is not sure he wants to add to his existing student debt amount.

It’s a familiar discussion topic among people in their 20s and 30s, he said.

“Everyone who’s taken out loans has felt the weight of those in the first 10 to 15 years out of school,” Hendricks said.

Financial-aid orientation

Educating incoming students about available student loans and grants also is part of the work IUPUC does during financial aid orientation each year, said Cassie Sutt, a financial aid representative at the university.

She recommends that students not take any more loan money than they need since it will all eventually have to be repaid back with interest.

While some IUPUC, students primarily rely on student loans to afford to attend classes, others utilize a combination of loans, scholarships and need-based aid depending on their circumstances, she said.

Some students at IUPUC, which has an enrollment of about 1,500, also receive scholarships and tuition-reimbursement opportunities through their employer or potential employer, said Naomi Cohenour, executive director of IUPUC’s Division of Administration and Finance.

Some students enrolled in IUPUC’s nursing program can also receive tuition reimbursement as part of an agreement the university has with area hospitals, she said.

Student loan payment plans

The U.S. Department of Education offers several payment plans for repaying federal student loans. For more information, visit https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/repay-loans/understand/plans

Tips for paying off student loans

Sign up for auto-debit so monthly payments are automatically transferred from a bank account to a lender. That will often result in an interest-rate deduction.

Choose a repayment plan with the highest monthly payment you can afford.

Be cautious about consolidating student loans. If one loan has a high interest rate and another has a low interest rate, consolidation may not save an individual money on their debt and prevents someone from targeting the loan with the highest interest rate for quicker repayment.

Source: Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of Cappex.com

Financial information for IUPUC students

Potential and current IUPUC students can get information on financial information by clicking on this website link:

https://students.iupuc.edu/paying-for-college/your-success/index.html

Help with student-aid applications

The Bartholomew Financial Literacy Coalition plans to help local high school students and their families fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid this month.

FAFSA days will be:

  • 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesday at the Columbus East High School library.
  • 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Feb. 21 in Rooms 1004 A and B at Columbus North High School.
  • 8 a.m. to noon Feb. 22 at Hauser High School in Hope.

For more information, contact Laurie Dickerson, iGrad director at Ivy Tech Community College, at 812-374-5281 or email ldickerson19@ivytech.edu.

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Matt Kent is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at 812-379-5712 or mkent@therepublic.com