For years, the cost of higher education in the U.S. has been climbing at disproportionate rates. From the 2007–2008 school year to the 2017–2018 school year, education-related expenses at public higher education institutions rose 31 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
College students are saddled with loan debt, amounting to $1.64 trillion spread across 44.7 million borrowers, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve. That exceeds the $1.08 trillion owed in credit card debt nationwide.
An area college is dedicated to changing the narrative. North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton is one institution working hard to familiarize students with their financial aid packages, said Shelley Blome, NDSCS financial aid director.
NDSCS boasts a striking statistic: 71 percent of their students attend tuition free. The number does not include loans, it is free money a student receives through scholarships, grants, sponsorships or benefits, Blome said.
“We always tell students, ‘Free money, you don’t pay back. That might not mean anything to you today, but when you get out of school and you start making those payments every month, it means a lot,’” she said.
Blome said the college tries to make a difficult topic as seamless and simple as possible.
“We’re kind of an open book,” Blome said.
They tell students to apply for scholarships early and apply for everything they can, she said. The financial aid office lists pages and pages of external scholarships. Students are also encouraged to ask their parents if their place of work offers scholarships because anything helps, Blome said.
Internal scholarships are easy to score. Blome said all students have to do is fill out the admissions application because she added several questions to the application that provide the data she needs to award scholarships.
Blome works hard to award every student the maximum financial aid they are eligible to receive. Blome asks incoming students to share hardships they may have with her and her staff.
“Sometimes they’re first-time parents or a first-generation student, and they don’t know what to ask, so we have a pretty good spiel to say to everyone,” Blome said.
Every student that comes to the college to register is given a private meeting with the business office and financial aid office where they receive a full estimate of their cost of attendance. Staff breakdown a student’s financial aid options next, highlighting where they may fall short, or where they may have some extra money, Blome said.
“We strongly encourage sponsorships,” Blome said. “Our career services office is excellent with that.”
A sponsorship can be any amount of money and comes from various employers, Blome said. Essentially, it’s a way for businesses to seek out employees and help them through college. Sponsors can also serve as a mentor for students, Blome said. Every one of the programs at the college qualifies for a sponsorship aside from culinary and liberal arts, she said.
“It’s a great way for the student to try out that business, and that business to try out that student,” Blome said.
If a student is sponsored by a North Dakota company and agrees to live and work in the state for three years after graduation, Blome said the state will match the first $8,500 of the sponsorship. This awards the student at least $17,000.
Furthermore, if a student is not sponsored while they are in college, but are hired following graduation, there is a loan repayment program that the state will also match up to $8,500, Blome said.
The college also offers federal and college-based work study programs, where students can work an on-campus job and use the income to pay for educational expenses.
If students do need to take out a loan, Blome encourages students to seek a subsidized loan first since it does not gain interest while a student is still enrolled in school.
Blome does not worry about financial illiteracy in incoming students because of the thorough and thoughtful attention they provide each student. In addition to the counseling each student is given, if they do decide to pursue a loan, they must complete entrance counseling and sign a master promissory note acknowledging understanding of the loan.
“I always tell my students, ‘Don’t sign for anything unless you know what it is,’” Blome said. “I don’t know that many students who can go to school who don’t realize they’re taking out a loan.”
About 20 percent of 15 year olds in the U.S. do not understand basic financial concepts, according to a study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. This statistic may not apply to area students though. Blome said all first-year students are required to take First Year Experience, a class with a financial literacy component.
Some area high schools are also taking a stand to better prepare their students for college and their future. Wahpeton High School requires a personal finance course for their students, Counselor Jessica Gilsrud said. The class is not required by the state of North Dakota, although there are specific concepts that students are required to receive via the social curriculum, according to the State Department of Education.
Though not required by the state of Minnesota, Breckenridge High School students also need to take a personal finance class their junior and senior year, Business Education teacher Derek Grahn said.
“I’m really thankful that Breckenridge chooses to make that a priority here,” Grahn said in a Daily News interview. “Especially if you look at a lot of schools in Minnesota, it’s not required for them, and obviously, personal financial literacy is a very major part of anyone’s future.”
Blome said financial aid options changed slightly with the onset of COVID-19 in spring 2020. The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund gave enrolled, on-campus students a grant if they could prove they experienced hardship due to the virus.
“I think that colleges are more reactive to costs right now, that’s why we push sponsorships and scholarships,” Blome said.
Blome said they tried to stretch the relief funds as far as possible, even reserving some money for helping students gain access to WiFi at their homes. She said they saved about a fourth of the relief funds for students who returned in August to finish their lab or clinical classes. Each student was given a stipend for their room and board, Blome said.
“We didn’t get any money in the fall. We’re still hoping because students still have hardships,” Blome said.
Blome said many students think they cannot pay for college. It’s an everyday question for the financial aid staff.
“We sit down and calmly try to get to why they’re thinking they can’t go to school,” Blome said. “Do they not have the support? Do they not have the money?”
Blome said during the conversation a lightbulb goes off, and students begin to have hope they can attend college. She loves to see that hope.
“I love being around them (students), helping them,” she said. “If I didn’t have student contact, I probably wouldn’t like financial aid as much.”