Families struggle with college debt

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BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) – When he graduates from Canisius College in May, Jon Rowan will have nearly $40,000 in debt.

“It’s a huge burden. That college loan is always behind me right now,” said Rowan.

Rowan is the only full-time worker of his family’s food truck, Cheesy Chick. While he’s gotten a lot out of his studies in entrepreneurship, he’s worried about paying his loans.

He’s not alone.

Canisius graduates carry about $38,000 in average debt, among the highest in Western New York. That’s also higher than the national average of $32,600 for private schools, according to a study of the Class of 2013 by a nonprofit, The Institute for College Access & Success.

Other private schools like St. Bonaventure, D’Youville and Niagara are close behind.




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Canisius also reports that 69 percent of its graduates have student loans which is among the lowest of local private schools.

Canisius College President John J. Hurley says few pay the school’s total sticker price which totaled $45,680 for the Class of 2013. Hurley says Canisius gives generous grants to bring that net cost – before any loans – to an average of $22,000. Hurley says any debt that students take on is an investment and manageable as long as they can find jobs.

“That’s where we think schools like Canisius have the edge because we’ve been focused for years on providing students with the skills they need to survive in the world,” said Hurley.  “These are critical thinking skills, oral and written communication skills, things that distinguish them when they go out to interview for jobs.”

Other area private colleges say they follow the same strategy in awarding aid.

“Last year we had over $36 million in aid and scholarships that we gave out to incoming students,” said Tom Burns, associate vice president, Niagara University.

While most applicants get some kind of scholarship, 70 percent of graduates leave Niagara with an average debt of nearly $32,000.

“Students see that has a value and worth it,” said Burns.

Earning a four-year college degree pays off, experts and studies say.

One study says a graduate paying an annual tuition of about $20,000 can recoup the costs by age 40. After that, a typical college grad will make $800,000 more than a high school graduate by retirement age.

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That’s the message that got Aaron Zak, 26 focused on going to college as a student at Cleveland Hill High School.

“The counselors at my high school said that I should go to college,” said Aaron Zak. “They scared me into it because I was young and didn’t know what I was doing.”

His mother, Suzette Zak had taken a few college courses but never got a degree.

She was thrilled that her sons – Aaron, 26 and his younger brother, Adam, 24 – wanted to go to college

“I feel really bad for encouraging them,” she said.

These days, she watches helplessly as her sons struggle to repay some $70,000 in student loans between them.

Both defaulted. Adam’s wages are being garnished and Aaron got his put on hold.

Their credit has suffered and they can’t afford to live on their own.

“I have nothing to give them financially. I can wash their clothes. I can make dinner. That’s about it,” Suzette Zak said.

The brothers attended Villa Maria College.

Aaron earned an associate’s degree in graphic arts but works renovating houses.

Adam who has a bachelor’s degree in music business is doing jobs in audio and visual production, skills he learned on an internship.

The brothers said their excitement for college faded when six months after graduation the bills started coming in.

“I was young and confused on why I had to pay so much so fast,” said Aaron Zak. “I was working but I wasn’t making that much money.”

Now, he’s filled with regret. “When I first went to school, I was excited and ready to learn and now I kind of regret going to college because I have this huge lump sum of money that I have to pay back.”

What the Zaks are facing reflects the down side of paying for college.

As college costs have soared, students have increasingly turned to loans to pay the bills.

Economists warn that student debt — now up to $1.3 trillion — is dragging the economy because it keeps young people from buying cars, houses or even getting married.

Matthew Reed is the co-author of the study, “Student Debt and the Class of 2013” by The Institute for College Access & Success a non-profit that has been tracking college debt for almost a decade.

“The level of debt per graduate has continued to rise in recent years and has risen substantially compared to prior decades,” Reed said.

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Aaron Zak said just having the loan has put a damper on how he thinks about his future.

“I don’t want to raise kids if I have a student loan because if I have kids I want to take care of them,” he said. “I don’t want to worry about paying loans back.”

“That’s sad. I didn’t know that,” said his mother, Suzette Zak.

The brothers say they knew they had loans but knew little about how much or the interest rates.

“I had no idea,” said Adam Zak.”They are like everyone is supposed to go to college, Let’s do this and they sit you down and they don’t tell you the impact that this is going to have on your life.”

Seventeen months ago when he came to the University at Buffalo, President Obama declared a crisis on affording college and paying for the debt. He outlined reforms to make sure the debt students take on is manageable.

“The bottom line is higher education can not be a luxury. It’s an economic imperative. Every family should be able to afford to get it,” Obama told the crowd.

The Zak brothers have both benefited from some of federal loan reforms like paying a percentage of earnings and consolidating loans with an average interest rate.

“At this point I have to take it how it is because there is nothing I can really do,” said Adam Zak. “I owe them money for getting an education so I have to deal with it but it is hard. It stresses  you out while in a while.”

The focus on making debt manageable appears to be getting through to students, said Matthew Metz, director of financial aid for D’Youville College.

Metz said students and families are asking a lot more questions about loans. “Over the last couple of years, we’ve had smarter borrowing by students” including taking out only what they need, he said.

D’Youville, which specializes in health industry majors, saw 88 percent of its Class of 2013 leave college with debt which averaged $36.050. Metz said applicants can expect institutional aid and urges all students to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) which can identify help from other sources.

St. Bonaventure University says more than 90 percent of its students receive some kind of grant or scholarship from the college.

“While some students come to the university have to borrow resources in order to be able to attend St. Bonaventure University, we are recognized as being one of the most generous in terms of financial aid and they are graduating and getting into the job market in good time,” said Emily Morris, vice president for University Relations at St. Bonaventure.

In the Class of 2013 report, St. Bonaventure reports that 78 percent of its graduates leaving school with debt which averaged $36,208.

Morris said the post-graduation success is based on the school’s own surveys responded to by more than 60 percent of the graduates. “That’s what you are getting for the investment you are making at St. Bonaventure University,” Morris said.

The data used in the Class of 2013 study was obtained by The Institute for College Access & Success as reported to federal agencies and to Peterson’s, a publisher of college guides. Reporting is voluntary. While most schools in Western New York reported the debt information, others elsewhere did not. The national reporting rate was 57 percent, a number that creates an incomplete picture of college debt, the authors said.

(Medaille College is among the local colleges that did not provide debt data and did not respond to a request from News 4 Investigates for the information.)

Nationally, 69 percent of all graduates left college with debt in 2013. The average amount was $28,400. In New York State, average debt was $26,381 with 60 percent of graduates carrying loans.

Villa Maria College’s reported 91 percent of its graduates left school with debt in 2013.  That’s among the highest of local schools.  The average graduate left school with about $23,000 in debt.

Villa Maria also reported among the lowest tuition at $17,600 and among the highest percentage of students who qualified for federal Pell grants at 58 percent.

Brian Emerson, Villa Maria vice president for enrollment management & student services said Villa Maria has historically served students with a high level of need. “We do really well educating those students,” he said. Most of them – just under 85 percent – received some direct aid from Villa Maria, he said.

Daemen College reported 88 percent of graduates with debt which averaged about $30,000. About a third of students received federal Pell grants which are based on need.

Daemen President Gary A. Olson was not available for an interview but issued this statement, “Daemen College prides itself on being one of the most affordable, high-quality colleges in the Buffalo Niagara region and provides multiple opportunities for students of all income levels to afford our tuition and fees.”

Hilbert College also enrolls many low income students. About half received federal Pell grants and 86 percent graduated with loans in 2013 averaging about $19,000.

“We work really really hard at Hilbert knowing our mission is to those students to make sure to keep our costs down as much as possible and make that education affordable,” said Cynthia Zane, Hilbert president.

“Every dollar we spend we try to think about what a sacrifice it is for those families who send their sons and daughters to Hilbert,” she said. “We want to make sure financial gap is not too great.”

While Hilbert’s tuition is among the lowest in the area at about $19,000, students still face a financial burden that the school monitors closely especially if students are unsure of their major.

“We don’t hesitate to encourage that student and family to consider going to the community college for a couple of years,” said Zane.

She said the college works with students so they take courses that can transfer when they are ready to return to Hilbert.

That’s a strategy that Tom Zak, 19 plans to follow.

After watching his brothers – Aaron and Adam – struggle with about $70,000 loans between them, he’s taking it slowly and attending the lower cost Erie Community College for general studies on a pay as you go plan.

“I don’t want to be in debt. I know it’s not easy, being in debt,” said Tom Zak. “They’re not good, having that much loans at a young age.”

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