Chad Davis, the director of the Lehigh fund from the office of advancement gives a presentation to encourage students to be proud and give back to Lehigh University at Lamberton Hall on Tuesday, April 14, 2015. The office of financial aid hosted this information session to provide helpful tips about student loans and how to handle different issues related to student loans. (Nan He/B&W photo)

Students face rising amount of debt


This spring, Lehigh will send a new round of graduates into the “real world.” For many students, however, the burden of debt awaits them. The average student loan debt in the United States has boosted to roughly $30,000.

According to a 2014 Gallup article, students who have debt over $50,000 are less likely to be thriving in four different elements of well-being: purpose, financial, community and physical. The article reported that the largest difference was in the financial and physical well-being of debt-ladened grads to their loan-free counterparts.

In a separate Gallup article, a poll found that more than one in five adults, aged 18 to 29, cite their college costs as their primary financial problem.

Jennifer Mertz, the director of the Office of Financial Aid at Lehigh, said the average amount that the Class of 2014 bachelor recipients borrowed was $31,877. This number excludes PLUS Loans, which are federal loans that graduate or professional degree students and parents of dependent undergraduate students can use to help pay education expenses. The average loan debt for federal aid for those same set of students was about $22,025.

There are some schools that leave their graduates with little debt. U.S. News and World reports the top schools with students emerging with low debt are Princeton University, with students leaving $5,558 in debt on average; College of the Ozarks at $6,424; Berea College at $6,652; and Alice Lloyd College at $8,314.

In contrast, some schools are known for students who borrow large amounts of money. Saint Francis University graduates leave with an average debt of $50,275; The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, with $48,862; Anna Maria College with $48,750; and Rockford University with $45,577.

According to College Factual, Villanova and Lafayette, two schools often compared to Lehigh, have students who leave with comparable debt to Lehigh undergraduates. These schools sat at and below the national average, respectively.

With the mounting debt, however, comes the degree that makes Lehigh students competitive in the job market. Lehigh is among the top schools for return on investment according to the Wall Street Journal. Ranked No. 12, Lehigh’s students go on to have a 30-year return on investment of $1,308,000. Payscale reports that once Lehigh’s graduates are 20 years into work, their median salary is $123,499.

One of the main challenges for students is understanding their debt while in school.

“I know how much I borrowed and everything, but I really don’t have a clear sense of how long it will take to pay back or how much interest will accrue,” Megan Kozar, ’17, said.

The Office of Financial Aid is trying to become more accessible to students through several events. It has Financial Aid February, which aims to educate students about financial aid renewal processes. Students are able to participate in a trivia night, among other events.

The office also hosted a loan repayment presentation April 14 in Lamberton for students who had borrowed loans.

“We want to make it as easy as possible for students to understand how to renew their financial aid,” said Jennifer Chow, a graduate assistant in the office, in an email.

Mertz said in the 2015-16 year, Lehigh will provide students with more than $74 million in institutional grants and scholarships to help with the cost of attendance.

“We have four financial aid counselors who work with students and their families to provide them with options on paying for college,” Mertz said.

Mertz advises students to think about debt early on in their college career. She said students are able to use loan repayment calculators to predict the amount that they will owe after graduation. She also encourages students to anticipate a realistic starting salary for their first job after graduation, considering their major and potential geographic location.

According to Mertz, standard loan repayment takes 10 years.

There are also student debt forgiveness opportunities. According to the Federal Student Aid Office’s Loan Forgiveness page, if graduates spend a certain amount of time in public service or go into certain fields such as teaching, loans can be forgiven.

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