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Personal finance: Can college be affordable?

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 15 2011 11:39 a.m. MST

Students gather around the jobs board on the Brigham Young University campus. Part or full-time jobs may help students avoid debt while attending college.

Jaren Wilkey

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The trend seems scary for parents of high school or college students. Headlines have for several months blared that student debt is rising and may exceeds credit card debt in America. And proposals in the new Obama budget get rid of subsidies for some student grants and would see interest start accumulating before the ink dries on some loan document for graduate students, rather than being deferred, among other changes.

But you don't have to mortgage the house and send the kids into servitude in order to secure a good college education, according to a story in Tuesday's Christian Science Monitor, which offers six tips courtesy of a senior art-history major at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who is graduating debt-free.

Zac Bissonnette, that senior, wrote "Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships or Mooching Off My Parents."

He's not the only optimist out there.

There are, in fact, a number of tools available to help parents and students get a handle on college costs and debt, starting with this primer, offered by MSN.com

And colleges and universities are concerned about student debt and the ability of students, especially those who are low-income, to access a quality college education. The Institute for College Access and Success, which sponsors the Project on Student Debt(

projectonstudentdebt.org/pc_institution.php), offers some information on both what colleges and universities have tried to do to help and what the financial debt load has been for students at different institutions.

"A number of colleges have developed financial aid policies that limit or eliminate student loans from financial aid packages, reducing costs for students and families. We have analyzed each of these programs and include information here for the programs that meet our guidelines," it noted of the "financial aid pledges to reduce student debt." A phone call to the Oakland, Calif.-based program found that the project is ongoing, but 2009 numbers are the most current ones available on that portion of the site.

It is nevertheless a starting place to look at a capsule view of what has been occurring locally in terms of student debt accumulation. It's estimated that most students will attend college within 400 miles of home, so that matters. For instance, it says based on those 2009 numbers that a Utah graduating senior's average debt was $12,860 at four-year colleges and the proportion of college students with debt was 38 percent. You can see each state's breakdown here (projectonstudentdebt.org/state_by_state-data.php), including a drilled-down look at various institutions. Here's what it says about Utah(http://projectonstudentdebt.org/state_by_state-view2010.php?area=UT).

Liz Pulliam Weston, a columnist at MSN's MoneyCentral, warns consumers that student loans are only a good idea if the chosen career you are training for will pay enough to cover the loan payments and the cost of real life at the same time. She offers some basic guidelines here(http://articles.moneycentral.msn.com/CollegeAndFamily/CutCollegeCosts/HowMuchCollegeDebtIsTooMuch.aspx).

Meanwhile, there are creative ways to pay for student loans, such as Charity for Debt(http://www.charityfordebt.org).

Proposals that could reduce the amount of money available to students has not gone unnoticed by the educational institutions. The Boston Globe reported Tuesday that concerns about the future of the Federal Perkins Loan Program, which is designed to help low-income students and is latesd to expire in 2014, prompted a group of 30 university presidents to send a letter (www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2011/02/13/student_loan_cut_worries_colleges) to the administration asking for protection of the low-interest loans.

e-mail: lois@desnews.com

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