Defying the Trend

The nation’s list of woes grew a little longer last October when the Federal Reserve Bank of New York and others reported that the amount of student loans taken out last year had crossed the $100 billion threshold. The total loans owed is expected to exceed $1 trillion this year and for the first time in history, student loan debt in the U.S. surpassed credit card debt. 

The Project on Student Debt also reported that approximately two-thirds of bachelor’s degree graduates in 2010 borrowed to complete their education, with those students graduating with an average debt of $25,520, a five percent increase over the previous year.

For John Rocchio ’12, the sobering news further affirmed his decision to attend The Jesuit College of New Jersey. “I recognized that going to Saint Peter’s College would give me an opportunity to get through college without taking out any loans,” said Rocchio an economics and psychology major from Saddle Brook, N.J.  “I think that the flexibility of being debt-free is the best part. I can start to plan for the future.” 

Affordability and a high quality education isn’t limited to Presidential Scholarship recipients, an annual award that covers full tuition for students with top academic credentials.

For the last two years, Saint Peter’s College has held the top spot among New Jersey institutions in the Need-Based Aid category and was ranked as one of the most affordable institutions in the North for Least Debt according to the U.S. News & World Report 2012 Best Colleges guide.

The most recent data available also shows that the average debt accumulated by Saint Peter’s graduates is lower than the national average for private colleges. In 2010, graduating seniors who borrowed for education completed their degrees with an average of $24,781 in student loans, 11 percent lower than the national average.

Virginia Bender, Ph.D., ’78, special assistant to the president for institutional planning, points to a host of factors that contribute to a brighter debt picture for Saint Peter’s students. Here, the great diversity of the campus (U.S. News & World Report ranked the College first in Campus Ethnic Diversity in the Regional Universities North division in 2012) comes into play.

Historically, the College has served many first-generation students and continues to draw students from all socio-economic backgrounds.  Many are eligible for federal and state financial aid as well as institutional scholarships and merit awards. “Paying for college involves coordinating the resources of students and their families with federal and state aid, institutional merit and need-based grants, work-study and loans. We work diligently to put those resources together into an affordable package,” said Dr. Bender.

“We definitely are leaders in this area,” said Terence Peavy, vice president for enrollment management and marketing. “We do an aggressive job to match a student with the appropriate profile for a scholarship so that they can come into our community.”

The Office of Financial Aid is also student-focused and transparent with students and families about the actual out-of-pocket cost and any loans needed to attend Saint Peter’s. “Counselors hold financial planning meetings with families,” Dr. Bender continued, “so that they understand their own investment. Students have to realize they are primarily responsible for this obligation and we work with them to make it affordable. The commitment is embedded in our mission and is reflected in the College’s economic diversity.” 

“Saint Peter’s was the best choice to keep me out of debt,” said Wilton Wilson ’13, who is paying his way through college with a combination of financial aid, scholarships and work study. Wilson is also chair of the Student Advisory Committee of HESAA (Higher Education Student Assistance Authority) that advises the HESAA Board on the student perspective with regard to policies and regulations governing financial aid programs.

Wilson’s involvement is a prime example of the advocacy efforts undertaken by members of the College community. Faculty, students and administrators are active proponents for student aid programs and take leadership roles in issues that affect student debt. Rev. Michael L. Braden, S.J., vice president for mission and ministry, serves on the HESAA Board.

Saint Peter’s robust Cooperative Education and Internship Program, now in its 36th year, also offers significant opportunities for students to pare down debt. During the 2010–11 academic year, average internship earnings were more than $10,000 and used by many to defray the costs of attendance. And green initiatives that lower energy costs and reduce non-instructional expenses help the College deliver an excellent Jesuit education while keeping tuition and fees competitive. Currently, Saint Peter’s tuition and fees are the fifth lowest among the 28 member institutions of the Association of Jesuit Colleges & Universities (AJCU).

Growing the endowment, a critical priority outlined in Students at the Center: The Campaign for Saint Peter’s College, will strengthen the debt position and make the College an even more attractive choice. “The more scholarships we can fund, the more students that are helped,” said William J. Cozine ’60, a member of the Board of Trustees and chair of the Finance Committee. “Anything we can do to relieve the amount of debt when they graduate is good for students and good for the College.”