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Photo: Getty Images/iStockphoto, License: N/A, Created: 2019:04:23 11:20:14

by Phil Yacuboski

Going to college is an expensive venture everywhere, but especially in Pennsylvania. As people across the country are struggling to pay back mountains of student debt, Pennsylvania students have by far, the biggest bill.

A 2018 LendEDU study found that at $36,193, Pennsylvania students owe the most of students in any other state in the nation.

“We counsel families on all options for paying for school, including grants, scholarships and loans,” said Amanda Kishbaugh, director of financial aid at Bloomsburg University. “Many parents come to us who have no money saved for school or just not enough and they’re shocked to learn their students cannot borrow all of the funds in their own names.”

During the 2017-2018 school year, 89% of students attending Bloomsburg University received financial aid, according to Kishbaugh. The average student graduating from BU carries $34,916 in student debt, according to information supplied by the school.

“Some parents are willing to take on the loan burden by borrowing through the Federal PLUS program or private loans but some simply cannot afford to do that, and we have to tell them to examine other school options that may be less expensive,” she said.

The LendEDU study found two out of three graduating college students leave school with some debt. According to the study, Alvernia University had the highest amount of student debt at $51,958, Delaware Valley University at $47,640 and Lebanon Valley College at $43,346. Penn State Hazleton ranked sixth at $43,579, Wilkes University ranked eighth at $43,241, Misericorida University ranked ninth at $42,686, Marywood University ranked 10th at $42,603, King’s College ranked 38th at $37,874, Penn State University Park ranked 42nd at $37,213, Penn State Worthing-Scranton ranked 40th at $36,098, and Bloomsburg ranked 44th.

“I don’t think families are shocked about the cost,” said Kishbaugh, “but more are surprised by the amount of aid they qualify for. There are so many myths that low-income families won’t have to come up with any funding out-of-pocket, and that’s simply not true. Parents especially are confused because they may be struggling to pay household bills and they don’t understand how the federal government would expect them to find money for school.”

She said the FAFSA process really doesn’t take bills into consideration and is looking mostly at the income coming into the household.

Kishbaugh said parents often borrow money for costs not directly associated with college – like off-campus housing. She said they often advise parents that there are ways to cut costs including commuting to school, staying on track academically (so it doesn’t take extra semesters to complete your degree) and living on campus.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, 9.6% of Pennsylvania students default on their student loans. At four-year schools, the default rate drops to 6.7%.

At Lackawanna College, 19.9% of those who borrow money to attend are in default.

“We always stress to our students to borrow smartly and only what they need,” said Matt Peters, director of financial aid at Lackawanna College. “We do try to counsel those students who borrow over what is needed by just reminding them that these are loans and they will need to be paid back. In the end, it is ultimately up to the student to make the decision of what and how much to borrow.”

Peters said in some cases, financial aid can’t cover the cost of full-time tuition; those students are advised to attend part-time.

“In some cases, that makes college more affordable to them,” he said.

Peters said as college costs go up every year, financial aid sometimes does not.

“Annual loan limits have been the same amount for years now, the Federal PELL Grant has only increased $100 this past year, and state grants are declining every year,” he said.

“Today’s student does have a harder time covering college costs and has become more reliant on student borrowing.”