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Student Loans Make Affording College Easier…at a Cost

John Coogan

For many young adults, the transition to college is one of the biggest moments of their lives – bringing with it the first time they will live on their own, and the first time they take financial responsibility for their future. However, the cost of college is often beyond their reach, and their college dreams cannot be realized without financial assistance through student loans.

The Burden of Student Loans

More often than not, families across the country do turn to loans to finance the difference between what they can afford and what they must pay. The debt burden placed on students by college educations has continued to grow. According to the Brookings Institution, and data from the Pew Research Center, by 2010, almost one in five American households had outstanding student debt, including 40 percent of households headed by a person younger than 35. Additionally, Brookings found that just 13 years ago, the average student borrowed only about 38 percent, but since 2010, those loans have now become nearly half of net tuition costs.

These higher portions of borrowed money can have enormous financial implications for families, and most importantly, on the long-term wealth potential of the students themselves. U.S. News & World Report even recently released an article addressing whether the higher levels of student debt will also force the generation of millennials to work up to a decade longer than their parents. For millennials who have lost a parent, the challenge is even greater.

According to data from our organization, Children of Fallen Patriots Foundation, which seeks to ensure a debt-free college education for children of soldiers killed while on active duty, the gap – between the scholarships, grants and even the benefits provided to surviving children of military killed in action – is estimated to be more than $30,000 per child for a four-year school. Since our inception, we have granted nearly $6 million to students to help them close the gap.

The Insurmountable Costs of College

For families already struggling, the costs of college can seem insurmountable, even when their children are younger and they have more time to plan. Dawanna Kimble, who lost her husband in a helicopter crash on Jan. 26, 2005, has a 9-year-old, a 12-year-old, two 14-year-olds and a 19-year-old whom we are currently helping with studies at the Universal Schools & Colleges of Health & Human Services. Her eldest son, Estevan, was required to take a 10-week course on Sports Medicine as a precursor to his college entrance, at a cost of nearly $4,000 in addition to the eventual cost of his college. (Our foundation steps in to help with unexpected costs such as these, in addition to any college costs not covered by benefits or other scholarships.)

For military families who have lost a parent in the line of duty, the transition to college – even with the availability of student loans— is often not possible without even more additional support. As the surviving spouse struggles to establish a new beginning for the family (the fallen military member was typically the sole breadwinner), taking on additional debt is not always an option or can be crippling to a family’s finances. Even the children of fallen patriots who are already adults feel the burden.

Kathryn Hawley was in her final semester of college at the University of Montana when she left to help care for her father, a Vietnam vet battling leukemia after being exposed to Agent Orange during service. When she finally felt ready to return to school three years later to complete a degree in sociology, her benefits had expired and the burden of payment on her more than $35,000 in student loans at 6.8 percent had become crushing.

She was living paycheck to paycheck and working three jobs, anxiously applying for better-paying jobs in order to make ends meet, and hoping to finish her education. Through the Veterans Department at the University of Montana, she learned about our organization, which helped to pay her undergrad debts in full. Shortly thereafter, she received a job offer from the state of Montana in child care licensing, and the coincidental timing of the job and loan repayment enabled her to move forward with her life without crippling debt hanging over her head.

For children of fallen patriots like Kathryn, there is help available as the country pulls together in thanks for the service of their parents, but not every college student receives assistance in this manner. For many, student loans are a commitment that can last decades beyond the time they spent at college, and an important step in earning the degrees that enable them to work toward higher paying careers.

In the long run, choosing a college to help put young adults onto a higher earning career path that would not have been possible without a degree is always worth the financial cost incurred in the short term. And while we work to ensure that surviving children of fallen patriots aren’t limited in their options by the cost of their target schools, it is important for every student to realize that educational loans, while growing in frequency and creating a higher payment burden, can put the dream of affordable college education within reach for all.

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