A new program at McPherson College aims at helping students graduate with no student loan debt. The Student Debt Project focuses on making college a possibility by addressing families’ biggest challenge.

“Most schools are talking about cost and others boast large scholarship programs,” McPherson College President Michael Schneider said. “Our data is clear. Students and parents are focused on debt. We want to meet them there.”

It’s hard to miss the news coverage of the amount of student loan debt in the United States. Last year nationwide, the average student loan debt was $37,000 with 44.2 million borrowers owing $1.31 trillion. The Washington Post reported, 11 percent of the nation’s college graduates with student loan debt were either delinquent or in default, according to the Department of Education.

The student debt project is part of McPherson College’s commitment to its strategic plan “Community by Design.” The project was tested during the last academic year with success and officially launched this fall with 24 students.

It focuses on three areas: employment, mentorship, and financial literacy. Each student completes a financial planning workshop where they create a budget, and works with a mentor to navigate their continually changing financial challenges as college students. Each student has a unique financial situation, requiring individual plans. However, a component of each plan includes students’ agreement to work throughout their time at college, and McPherson College will match earnings applied to a student account at 25 cents per dollar.

“In last year’s pilot cohort, we saw students make significant progress on reducing their student loan debt,” President Schneider said. “We hope that any student who will make the commitment can graduate with no student loan debt.”

Junior Kylee Martin participated in the pilot program because she was interested in graduating with as little debt as possible. She took the financial literacy training seriously and has worked in various internships to reduce her student loan debt.

“Once you see it start to add up it’s exciting and you see that you can do this,” she said. “I’ve been able to cut my tuition debt in half. It’s nice knowing that I don’t have to ask my parents for money. I even have some money saved for emergencies, and I’ve learned things that I will use the rest of my life.”

The Student Debt Project was sparked by the fact that many students take out excess student loans. “At McPherson College we found that in some years nearly forty percent of the total student debt is refunded back to them,” President Schneider said. “We started to think about ways we could educate students on how to better manage and budget their refunds in order to reduce their loan debt.”

McPherson College is hopeful that the project will make it possible for a significant number of its students to afford a college education, and to change the paradigm of what is really at issue in paying for a college education.

“We are encouraging any student, including our first-year students, who are serious about reducing their expected student loan debt to apply for the program,” Christi Hopkins, vice president of enrollment management, said. “Our goal is that this project will not only make coming to college possible for many, but also lead to sustainable, brighter start to our student’s careers. You pair no student loans with a job out of college and it is a big win.”

Students interested in learning more about the project can go to the college website at: www.mcpherson.edu/debtproject.