Opinion: Schools must help students better understand college costs

An Atlanta college student talks about turning down her dream school for one that costs less and will allow her to graduate debt-free, a goal that she says students need to realize is important. (AJC file photo)

Credit: TNS

Combined ShapeCaption
An Atlanta college student talks about turning down her dream school for one that costs less and will allow her to graduate debt-free, a goal that she says students need to realize is important. (AJC file photo)

Credit: TNS

Ashleigh Ewald is a fall intern at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who is working in the newsroom as a digital producer. She’s an undergraduate student at Oglethorpe University in Brookhaven and its first East Asian student body president.

In this guest column, Ewald writes about how high school counselors and colleges can better advise students on choosing a college that will offer them a great education and graduate with minimal debt.

By Ashleigh Ewald

I had an important decision to make more than two years ago when I was about to graduate from high school: Boston University or Oglethorpe University.

When it was time for me to choose a college, I felt the decision was the be-all and end-all for my academic career. It can feel depressing to be accepted into your dream university only to ultimately decide to choose another school due to finances.

In the United States, there’s a combined $1.75 trillion worth of student loan debt. In Georgia, the average student loan debt is more than $40,000. Only Maryland and Washington, D.C., have higher average student loan debt. The numbers show there’s a problem: Many students may not have learned enough about financial literacy in high school or other opportunities to lessen the cost of attending their chosen school.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Understanding financial aid, becoming student loan literate and choosing the best university based on affordability can make the college dream a reality. It can also help young people do their best to graduate with less debt so they don’t struggle to purchase a home and have more freedom in general.

I looked at my financial award from Oglethorpe University and compared it to what Boston University offered. My debt after four years at Boston University would be $145,000. I knew that amount would grow because of interest over time, so I had to be realistic about how much debt I would carry. I estimated my costs to Oglethorpe University would be much less in part because I was eligible for the HOPE Scholarship.

I set up a one-on-one Zoom meeting with the financial aid officer, my high school counselor, trusted teachers and my parents, who helped steer me in the right direction. I decided to sacrifice attending my dream school to be debt-free. As a junior now at Oglethorpe University, I am beyond grateful for that decision.

As a small private liberal arts school, Oglethorpe offers me the benefit of making a difference and building meaningful relationships with my fellow students. It is easier to make a difference on a campus of approximately 1,500 students than at Boston University with about 17,500 undergraduates.

The choice of how much student loans and financial responsibility one will have to manage is ultimately up to them. Students can avoid debt by applying for HOPE and/or Zell Miller scholarships, which cover most or all tuition if the academic requirements are met. I was admitted to Georgia State University but I chose Oglethorpe due to the campus, faculty, small classes and the opportunity to attend a private university debt-free.

Oglethorpe has been committed to successfully rewarding applicants with scholarships such as the one I received, the Presidential Scholarship, which covers most of my tuition. Oglethorpe provides merit aid to 90% of its students. The admissions process ensures that applications are automatically reviewed to determine scholarships and awards based on merit.

Every higher educational institution should assist students the same way. They should help minimize tuition costs. Interest rates on student loans should be frozen while the student is enrolled and there should be a grace period after graduation to begin paying back the loans. This ensures student loan interest rates stay the same while students are taking classes and perhaps working during their time in school. For instance, the U.S. Department of Education provided student loan relief due to the COVID-19 pandemic, making it so there was a 0% interest rate on student loans.

To help students become better informed about how to successfully appeal for aid and strengthen scholarship applications, high schools should host webinars about scholarship opportunities throughout the school year. Students need help to differentiate between subsidized/unsubsidized student loans and understand the terms of financial aid.

The college decision-making process does not have to be intimidating. Acknowledging that college is what you make of it and focusing on incurring less debt will lead to a brighter future.

About the Author