WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) – Purdue students are taking out loans at a lesser rate than they did 30 years ago, but as tuition has increased, so has the amount they must pay back. Today, six in ten Purdue students graduate with debt. On average, those students owe $24,056, according to the Indiana Commission for Higher Education.
The national average for student loan debt is around $29,000, according to CNN Money.
“[The debt] is in the back of my mind all the time,” said Purdue senior Shelby Williams. “How am I going to do this? What’s going to happen if I can’t?”
When she graduates in December, Williams will owe about $20,000 in student loans. The Portage, Ind. native has scholarships, grants and a part-time job to help pay for school, but she says the loans fill a sizable gap.
“It’s a scary number,” said Williams. “I don’t have that money. Who has that kind of money to just say, ‘Here it is. Here’s paying for school.’ It’s a scary number, definitely.”
Lauren Deeter, a sophomore, will graduate Purdue with about $22,000 in student loan debt. Deeter is a first generation college student coming from a single-parent household, so she says the odds are already stacked against her.
“It makes me really nervous, just because noting is every really guaranteed when I graduate,” said Deeter. “Am I going to go to grad school? Am I going to get a career that’s not going to pay that well, and I’m not going to be able to pay off my loans?”
It’s a question many students face when they graduate college. At Indiana University, 61 percent of students graduate with debt. Their average amount owed is around $27,000.
Both Williams and Deeter come from low-income households and receive various state and federal grants to help pay for school. However, neither was able to qualify for 21st Century Scholars, an Indiana tuition program for low-income students who want to attend college.
21st Century Scholars receive up to four years of tuition at any Indiana public college or university paid for by the state. To qualify, they must come from a low-income household and sign a pledge in seventh or eighth grade. The pledge states the student will keep a minimum grade point average and stay out of trouble all the way through high school, among other requirements.
“I think [21st Century Scholars] has made a colossal difference because a lot of low-income families are terrified by student loans,” said Ted Malone, Purdue’s executive director of financial aid. “The combination of 21st Century Scholars with the Pell Grant often creates a situation where all of the direct fees are covered.”
This year there are almost 300 21st Century Scholars on Purdue’s campus.
“For kids like us, this was the only way to get to college,” said Andrea DaViera, a junior at Purdue.
Both of DaViera’s parents have some college education but did not finish school.
“We struggled a lot with money, just because of bad jobs,” DaViera said. “College was such a big drive for me, because I was tired of being poor.”
Since 1990, the program has enrolled more than 57,000 Indiana students in college. In turn, the state has provided $347 million in aid for the program. Thanks to 21st Century Scholars, DaViera and hundreds of other students across the state will graduate with little or no debt.
“They’ve begun planning for college from the seventh grade on,” Malone said. “Getting that help and…having that encouragement that comes along with the program I think is fairly substantial in preparing students to get here and be successful.”