By Michael Schneider, President
Jake Curtis and his twin brother, Jared, had big dreams of college—coupled with fears those dreams could be crippled by years of student debt. For the Curtis family, the financial burden of having four kids in college within a five-year span could have derailed the twins’ plans—until they came to McPherson College to participate in the Student Debt Project. As sophomores this year, Jake and Jared are balancing hectic class and co-curricular schedules with part-time work. They haven’t taken out any student loans—and don’t plan to—because each expects to graduate with zero student debt.
College-ready families I talk with have serious angst about student loan debt. They’re worried about paying for college, and worried they—or their kids—will still be paying off that debt years after the diploma is earned. That’s why we’ve made debt reduction an overarching mission for McPherson College. We’ve found a way to make college affordable by combining financial literacy education, jobs, mentorships and matching dollars to create a track for students to graduate with little or no debt.
The need couldn’t be more urgent. Nationwide, student loan debt is at an all-time high of nearly $1.6 trillion—second only to mortgage debt. Some 371,000 Kansans collectively owe more than $11.5 billion in federal student loans. In fact, among all Kansas graduates in the class of 2018, nearly 60 percent of them graduated with debt.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
With job placement assistance provided by the college, those in our Student Debt Project are working part-time jobs and paying down their debt before they graduate. McPherson College matches a percentage of every dollar students contribute to their education.
Dedicated community mentors support our students as they balance work, education and life during their college years. Every student manages a custom budget and works through paying for their education while they are in school by honing their financial management skills. The Student Debt Project is instilling a sense of financial independence that will impact a student for life.
Freshman Zaya Carson of Des Moines hopes to become a doctor and genetic research scientist. She knows it means years of education ahead of her—and could mean staggering student debt. Zaya applied to much larger schools before deciding on McPherson College. She recognized the monthly mentoring provided personalized support she wouldn’t receive at a larger school. For Zaya, the program has been far more than a debt-free way to earn her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry. It’s also been a significant confidence builder as she prepares to start her career in a very competitive job market.
The Future Track
There’s a myth that students who attend private colleges accrue more debt than their public university peers. But it’s not true nationally, and especially not true here in Kansas. In fact, McPherson College students graduate with no more debt than students from Kansas’ public universities. And that average debt is less than the price of a Honda Accord.
Further, over 80 percent of McPherson College students finish their degree in four years, compared to only 66 percent of Kansas’ public university students. That means our graduates are already out in the workforce earning a living, while their friends at public universities are still working on their degrees.
Kylee Martin of Goodland was one of the first to participate in the Student Debt Project. She had looked at larger schools and had qualified for more than $40,000 in student loans. Though tempted to take the money, she didn’t want to be saddled with that debt. She had her sights set on owning a home and one day starting her own business.
Kylee put herself on the debt-free track to achieve her goals. In May, she’ll complete her bachelor’s degree—and graduate with significantly less student debt than she expected. And by applying the principles she learned and practiced while in the Student Debt Project, Kylee is on track to achieving her future goals.
Without the burden of student debt, I can’t wait to see what Kylee – and the rest of our Student Debt Project graduates – will accomplish next.
As the president of a small college that competes with state-run and for-profit schools, I’m often asked the question: Should small colleges exist? My answer is, absolutely! The Student Debt Project is just one of the many reasons why.
McPherson College developed the Student Debt Project because it’s good for families, good for Kansas, and good for the nation’s economy. If colleges really want to prepare students to achieve their best lives after graduation, they should start by putting students on the right track for future financial independence.
For McPherson College, that starts by helping students graduate with little – to zero – student debt.