Professor Deb Licht teaches a statistics class at Pikes Peak Community College’s downtown campus. Student loan borrowers across Colorado Springs owe an average of $21,979 — about $6,400 less than the national average loan debt of $28,400.
Professor Deb Licht teaches a statistics class at Pikes Peak Community College’s downtown campus. Student loan borrowers across Colorado Springs owe an average of $21,979 — about $6,400 less than the national average loan debt of $28,400.

Colorado Springs colleges are actively helping students avoid loan debt disasters, saying the strategic planning they offer benefits not just their graduates, but the city as a whole.

Grants, scholarships, campus employment, financial workshops and guidance on using loans are all on the table, as institutions help students work out how to fund their education.

“You can’t just do one thing, it has to be constant contact,” said Jevita Rogers, senior executive director at the UCCS Office of Financial Aid, Student Employment and Scholarships.

“We’re always reminding students to be mindful of how much they’ve borrowed, and giving them tools on how to check that.

“We push the A-B-Cs: Always Borrow Conservatively.”

FINANCIAL ADVICE

The aim isn’t to steer students away from loans, Rogers said, but to help them weigh their options and manage money wisely.

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Erica Shafer, Colorado College’s associate director of financial aid in the Office of Financial Aid and Student Employment, said advisers encouraged students to “think critically about life after college, and financial realities,” to make better loan decisions.

Shafer said the college sees helping students graduate with lower debt as an investment in the broader community.

“A lot of research has looked at the effect student loans have, not only on an individual or micro level, but on a macro level as far as consumer spending,” she said.

“…You can do a lot more with your future after graduation if you aren’t limited with student loan debt.”

Colorado College commits significant endowment funds to institutional grants for eligible students, Shafer said, with need-based student loans and work-study opportunities making up a portion of the student’s financial input.

The college also offers financial literacy events and classes on loans and budgeting.

“It benefits everybody to try and be more proactive … so we try to be involved early on,” Shafer said. “This takes resources, so it’s a continuous goal of the college and our office.”

BEING PROACTIVE

Rogers said UCCS starts the conversation about loans as early as freshman orientation. Then students receive at least three reminders a year to check their loan debt and repayment figures.

Monthly workshops addressing money management cover everything from budgeting and saving to investing advice.

UCCS also funds on-campus student employment as a strategy for keeping student debt low. Statistics showed students employed on campus graduated sooner and with a higher GPA, Rogers said, with the daily connection increasing retention, engagement and motivation.

Low student loan debt and a close relationship with the college benefits the community by boosting the number of students who settle and work in the Springs, she said.

“We have increased the number of students who are staying here. It’s adding to the robustness of our city,” Rogers said.

Summit Economics Senior Economist Tom Binnings said that student loans generally provided a “net benefit to society and the individual,” as long as the degree generated higher income.

“Even if they spend more on debt and less on consumption at first, if they earn more than $4,000 extra in household income then the community’s coming out ahead and so are they,” he said.

Keeping student debt low could be especially important for keeping college graduates in the Springs, Binnings said.

“The higher my debt, the more I’m compelled to maximize my earning in the short term,” he said, which often means heading to larger cities offering higher salaries.

Lisa James, executive director at Pikes Peak Community College Foundation, said the organization aimed to help PPCC students avoid loans by awarding scholarships.

This year the foundation will award between $900,000 and $1.2 million, about double the figure for last fiscal year.

HELPFUL PROGRAM

James said the foundation maximized awards by leveraging state legislation.

The state of Colorado set aside $7 million this year for the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative, which offers matching scholarship funds for new or increased donations, she said.

That meant for 2016, the foundation had to raise $493,000 in new donations to receive the $493,000 available to the community college from the state.

“We actually over-raised — we raised $1 million in new funds last year because of this opportunity from the state,” she said.

James said those donations to the college came from the Colorado Springs community as well as from local businesses, showing a “direct correlation between what they see the potential is for their future workforce and where the investment is coming from.”

Annual tuition and fees at PPCC are $3,600 this year, James said. Most of the scholarships are in the $2,000-$2,500 range.

The scholarships meant students could take fewer loans and cut their work hours to focus on graduating, James said — but the impact would be felt throughout their working lives and even across generations.

“We have many students who have families, who have jobs, and who are making this choice to go to school not just for a better future for themselves, but also for a better future for their children,” she said.

“They are making a generational shift.”

BIG PICTURE

Scholarships and grants, James said,  “are not just an education support tool, they’re a support tool for the economic growth of this community. …

“When you get an associate degree, it’s a 25 percent [increase in earning capacity] that then continues over a lifetime.

“This is a workforce and economic development story that continues in tax rolls, in employers having enough qualified workers to hire, in rent, in property tax.

“It flows over and across our economic spectrum. This is an investment in the economic health of the Pikes Peak region.”

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series exploring the issues and impact of student loan debt on the Pikes Peak region.

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