Guest Opinions

Don’t let fear of college debt hold you back

Angelica Lopez is a first-generation college graduate from Mattawa. She graduated from Eastern Washington University with no debt. Now she works in the Tri-Cities as a student recruiter for Eastern.

Angelica’s story isn’t the one we’re used to hearing. We’re flooded with frightening tales about how college students graduate with oppressive debt: unable to find jobs, living with their parents, couch surfing in friends’ apartments.

That negative narrative can frighten students away from college. But, if you look at the data regarding student debt from public universities such as Eastern Washington University and community colleges such as Columbia Basin College, you’ll see the terrifying narrative is misleading.

Many published statistics combine debt incurred by students at private colleges and in graduate and professional programs — such as law schools — with the much smaller debt of undergraduate students at public colleges and universities.

Yes, attending public colleges and universities costs more than it used to. Alumni in Washington talk about how, years ago, they could pay for a year of college just by working a summer job.

In recent years, however, state support for public higher education has dropped precipitously. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, state funding for public colleges in the 2016-17 school year was nearly $9 billion below its 2008 level, after adjusting for inflation. While colleges incur higher costs, states now spend 20 percent less on higher education. Thus, public colleges and universities rely more on students’ tuition than they did in the past.

Nonetheless, college is still one of the best investments you can make. Not only is there a significant gap between the lifetime earnings of college and high school graduates, but college graduates are often physically and emotionally, as well as financially, healthier than individuals with only a high school diploma.

Mary Cullinan photo

So here are some things to consider as you think about college.

Carefully research college costs. Public colleges provide a great education, usually at a much lower cost than private institutions. Moreover, Washington is labeled a “low debt state” by the Institute for College Access and Success: average college debt in our state is $24,600. Eastern’s tuition is among the lowest of Washington’s state universities.

Almost half of Eastern students graduate with no debt.

Create a financial plan. Explore grant and scholarship options as well as part-time jobs before taking out loans. Angelica’s advice: “Apply, apply, apply for scholarships. Think locally first and then move on to bigger scholarships. There is no reason to hold yourself back from college based on funding.”

Also, seek out campus jobs, including working in the dorms as a residential assistant (which usually covers room and board).

Budget your money carefully and stick to your plan.

Carefully choose your academic major. Some majors lead more easily than others to well-paying jobs. Moreover, you want a major and a career at which you will excel.

Work with an academic adviser. Plan your path to graduation. Eastern and CBC have created smooth transfer pathways so students can move easily from an associate’s degree to a bachelor’s. An adviser will help you use your time and money well.

Finish your degree. Acquiring debt and then not obtaining a degree leaves you in a difficult position. Make a plan, make a commitment, and follow through.

Over 4,000 Eastern graduates live and work in the Tri-Cities. Every year, Eastern typically enrolls well over a hundred Tri-Cities’ students, many of whom have transferred from CBC. Their degrees profoundly expand their opportunities for the rest of their lives.

Angelica’s story is not unique. Prospective students need to hear about the successful college graduates who preceded them.

Rather than relay horror stories about debt, we should help students plan their pathway to success.

Mary Cullinan is President of Eastern Washington University.