Meghan Clark knows how hard it can be to pay for college. The 20-year-old Marmora resident, who graduated from Atlantic Cape Community College earlier this month, worked full time to afford her associate’s degree.
“I started out freshman year of college, I had like $200, if that, in my savings account. I didn’t have a job in high school,” Clark said. “I actually went to a school before I went to Atlantic Cape, and I had to leave because the financial burden was way too much.”
Like Clark, students across the country say they are not ready for the financial burden of higher education.
A new survey from Junior Achievement USA and Citizens Bank found many high school juniors and seniors, as well as college freshmen, felt unprepared to pay for college, and even more had not done any research on the topic. The survey also found that between 30 percent and 40 percent of those students had less than $1,000 in their savings account.
No local data were available from this survey, but New Jersey does have a financial literacy component in its curriculum standards, meaning students are required to receive some financial education while in high school.
Clark said she took a financial class her senior year at the Atlantic County Institute of Technology. While that helped, she wished she had more lessons in filling out financial forms, making a budget and saving.
“When I was younger, I was always told put money in your college fund. … I feel like I should have listened more to that, but a lot of time it became tough for my family to save that much,” Clark said.
During her time at Atlantic Cape, Clark’s parents’ financial situation made her unable to acquire loans, so she worked full time and paid for her credits out of pocket.
“It was always that thought in the back of my head, you could go out to eat, but you could also pay for a credit of your class,” she said.
Clark said it’s scary to think of people like her cousin who come out of college thousands of dollars in debt.
“You have to get educated to get a substantial job nowadays, but you have to live with that debt for a long time,” she said.
Across America, students are going into debt to attend college. National data show more than 67 percent of college students have received a loan at some point to pay for school.
According to the Pew Research Center, Americans owed $1.3 trillion in student loans at the end of June 2017, with four in 10 adults under age 30 having student loan debt.
The average amount of debt is about $25,000 for a bachelor’s degree and $45,000 for a post-graduate degree.
Clark said after her last college experience, she is better prepared for the financial responsibility when she eventually pursues her bachelor’s degree. First, she said she is participating in Disney’s College Program.
According to the Junior Achievement Survey, a majority of teens agreed a college degree is worth the cost and have applied or will apply to college.
“Kids today are intelligent. They know that a college degree is a good pathway to future success yet simply need more help understanding the implications of their decision-making. It absolutely takes a village to help ensure teens can accomplish what they hope to in life,” said Robin Olson, Junior Achievement’s director of development.
Jeanne Lewis, director of financial aid at Stockton University, said loans are an investment in the students’ college education.
“Their ability to repay the loan is realized after earning the college degree and attaining employment for which the college education has prepared them,” Lewis said.
She said students should be working during the summer and saving money to contribute toward their education, but that real financial planning is a family affair.
“If it’s possible, the family should begin to prepare financially as a unit early on when the student is actually a child,” Lewis said. “And of course, students should be applying for scholarships. That is so important.”