GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — When Jamie Sofia, 23, of Atlantic City, first went to Rowan University, she borrowed $18,000 at 20 percent interest to help cover the cost.

She later transferred to Richard Stockton College, and even with financial assistance from federal Pell grants, she figures she’ll owe about $50,000 by the time she graduates next May with a degree in public health administration.

“I was 19, and I really didn’t know what I was doing,” she said of the first loan. “I just knew I needed to borrow money to go to college. Stockton’s helped me, but one thing I know is that when I have kids, I want to start saving money for college as soon as they are born.”

Stockton students hosted a Student Debt Awareness Day on Monday as part of a statewide Week of Action promoted by New Jersey United Students, an organization of college students around the state. The high rate of student debt — now exceeding $1 trillion nationally — is one of their primary concerns, especially as they worry about having jobs after they graduate.

Today, they plan to phone legislators asking them to support bills that would provide more funding for financial aid. Gov. Chris Christie’s proposed budget increases funding for financial aid almost 8 percent, to more than $393 million.

Direct aid to state colleges is also increasing about 6 percent to $1.4 million, but that comes after years of shrinking or flat state aid. On average, state aid funds about $5,000 per student statewide, but funding is not based on enrollment. Stockton in 2010-11 got about $2,800 per student in state aid, leaving students to make up the rest in tuition, about $11,500 that year.

“Students shouldn’t have to borrow so much money to go to college,” said David Lamando, a Stockton junior and student senator from the Landisville section of Buena Borough, who coordinated the event. He watched as students wrote amounts ranging from zero to more than $100,000 on the debt poster they created. Students were asked to wear a sticker with their debt amount, but some said they were too embarrassed by the amount they owed.

Kaitlin Cibenko, 21, a junior from West Milford in Passaic County, said if they don’t talk about their debt, the public and Legislators won’t realize how big of a problem it is. She estimated she’ll owe about $27,000, when she graduates from Stockton and she hopes to go to medical school.

“All you hear about in high school is how you have to go to college to get a good job,” she said. “But no one ever really talks about how you’re going to pay for it and how much help you’re going to get.”

Low-income students are eligible for federal Pell grants for as much as $5,550 this year and state Tuition Aid Grants for as much as $6,512 at the state’s public colleges. The family income limit for TAG grants is $23,100 this year, exempting many middle class students who then turn to loans. In 2010, about 73,000 students in New Jersey got TAG grants, and another 25,500 took out state NJCLASS loans totaling $315 million.

Stockton Financial Aid Director Jeanne Lewis said this year almost 5,300 students got federal Stafford or Perkins loans totaling $37 million, a 6 percent increase from last year. The interest rate this year on federal loans was cut to 3.4 percent, but unless Congress acts, the rate will go back up to 6.8 percent in July.

Overall, Lewis said, 6,798 Stockton students, almost 94 percent of the 7,240 undergraduates at the college, got some type of financial aid this year. The estimated cost to attend Stockton in 2012-13 is about $12,500 for tuition and fees plus $10,700 for room and board.

The national Project on Student Debt’s 2011 report listed Stockton students as having the highest average debt among the state’s public colleges, at $30,843 in 2010, with almost 75 percent of all graduates leaving with debt. New Jersey ranked 21st in the nation in average student debt.

Stockton President Herman J. Saatkamp, Jr. stopped by the student event Monday and said the college budgeted almost $13.5 million for financial aid this year, including merit and need-based programs. He noted his own daughter graduated from medical school with almost $200,000 in loans.

Students who reported no debt typically had full scholarships or a combination of scholarships and family savings. Lamando estimated he would have only about $8,200 in debt. He said students used to be less worried about their debt because they figured they would find jobs after graduation. But with the economy still struggling, they are worried about having to start paying back loans before they find a job.

Lewis said students must take a loan-counseling workshop before they can borrow money, but many are very inexperienced in budgeting and don’t always understand the long-term repercussions or how to graduate with the least amount of debt.

“They’ll take only 12 credits when the could take 16 or 20 for the same amount of money,” Lewis said. “And they have to look at the total cost of attendance, especially if they want to live on campus and have the meal plan and pay for books.”

She said students want the entire college experience, but some realize they could live more cheaply at home.

Even small amounts of money can derail their plans, students say. Students told of registering for 20 credits, but dropping a course because they couldn’t afford all the books which can run hundreds of dollars per semester. One put off doing an internship this year because she didn’t have the money for a required fee. Many students work, some as resident assistants in campus housing so they can live there for free.

Junior Mico Lucide, of Somers Point, gets Pell and TAG grants, works on campus and said he’ll still have about $23,000 in debt when he graduates. He’s very active on campus and is interning with state Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic this summer. His lifetime goal is to attend law school and become a U.S. senator.

“But, before I got to law school, I want to pay off my student debt from Stockton,” he said.

Student college debt

Chart shows the average amount of student debt held by undergraduate students in the Class of 2010 and the percentage of

graduates at the college who had debt.

COLLEGE    DEBT AMOUNT    STUDENTS WITH DEBT

STATE AVG.    $23,792    66%

Georgian Court    $35,632    91%

Kean    $20,668    69%

Montclair    $18,805    n/a

NJIT    $34,760    59%

Princeton    $5,225    23%

Ramapo    $26,187    51%

Rider    $35,404    71%

Rowan     $29,073    73%

Rutgers     $16,766    68%

Rutgers-Camden    $21,330    75%

The College of NJ    $27,057    56%

Richard Stockton    $30,843    74%

William Paterson    $28,537    66%

Source: Project on Student Debt:  http://projectonstudentdebt.org/

 

Contact Diane D’Amico:

609-272-7241