The average college graduate carries a student loan burden of $21,000, according to the Project on Student Debt. That’s considerably more than Jillian Wilms and her single mother could ever afford.
For students like Wilms, academic stalwarts from families whose income falls below the poverty line, the towering expense of higher education is intimidating, if not impossible. Georgia high school students have relied upon the HOPE scholarship to ease the load, but there are other options available exclusively for those representing low-income households.
At Georgia Tech, where Wilms is a rising junior, it’s called the Tech Promise. Since its inception in 2007-2008, 366 students from families with an annual income of $33,300 or less have received a financial aid package that includes a combination of grants, scholarships and work study programs — and no student loans. Of those, 93 have graduated. This fall, 71 more will be brought in under the Tech Promise umbrella. The program goes beyond the HOPE, covering room and board and other expenses as well.
“It was [former Tech president] Wayne Clough’s vision three years ago that students across Georgia who are academically prepared would not, because of money, hesitate to come to Atlanta,” said Marie Mons, director of financial aid and scholarships at Tech. “The seeds of the program were not only that they get here, but that they graduate.”
The first college to eliminate loans from the financial aid packages of low income students was Princeton in 1988-1989. Fifty-five colleges have financial aid programs that limit or eliminate student loans, according to the Project on Student Debt. Emory University has the Emory Advantage program to assist dependent students who come from families with an annual total income of $100,000 or less. Emory uses two approaches — one replacing loans with grants for undergraduates whose total family income is $50,000 or less, and another, for those earning between $50,000 and $100,000, with a total loan cap of $15,000.
Without these types of programs, Wilms, a chemical engineering major from Gainesville, would have a very different college experience, she said.
“It has taken a lot of stress from what would have been a stressful situation,” said Wilms, who works 15 hours a week as a researcher on campus. “I would definitely be in debt. When you don’t always have money, it becomes something you mainly focus on. I would have to worry about where my money is coming from instead of where I’m going in the future.”
Tech Promise diversifies the socio-economic, racial and geographic mix of the student body, said Rick Clark, director of admissions.
While some schools have eliminated the no-loan policy, others have found ways to reduce the loan amount. For instance, Berry College has a work experience program that enables every student desiring to work on campus a job. At Agnes Scott College, The Agnes Solution combined with the HOPE and the Tuition Equalization Grant significantly reduces the student loan responsibility. And at all state schools, the HOPE reduces the loan requirement.
How much would you allow your college student to receive in loans? Do you believe students from low income families have a more difficult time academically in the absence of additional financial assistance?
How much do you owe in student loans?