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For the college-bound, getting accepted is just a first step

The Herald is following the experiences of one high school senior and his family as they go through the college application process -- from start to finish.

Ian Kelly
FNS Photo by Eric Hylden Grand Forks Central High School senior Ian Kelly is headed to the University of North Dakota next year.

The Herald is following the experiences of one high school senior and his family as they go through the college application process - from start to finish.

This is the second story in a three-part series looking at the decisions that have to be made as they pursue their college goals.

Over the past several months, Grand Forks Central High School senior Ian Kelly has been mulling how he’ll finance his college education.

This fall, he’ll step onto UND’s campus as a first-generation college student who’s planning a career in the Air Force in the memory of his late grandfather. As he counts down to graduation this spring, he’s been trying enjoy the final moments of his high schoolcareer while he anxiously anticipates word on any of the six scholarships he’s applied for.

“I’m just trying to get as many scholarships as I can so I don’t have to take out as much in financial aid,” said Kelly, who ranks within the top 25 percent of his class.  


Financing an education is arguably the biggest challenge students and parents face today. Ever-increasing college costs have forced a growing number to turn to loan debt, which now exceeds $1 trillion nationwide, as a way to afford college.

Seven in 10 college seniors who graduated in 2012 had student loan debt, carrying an average of $29,400, according to a report by the Institute for College Access and Success released a couple months ago. Although Kelly recognizes he can always take out a loan, he finds no comfort in that, he said.

“Sooner or later, those loans are going to come back and you’re going to have to pay for them,” he said. “You can pay for them during college or you can pay for them after. The main difference between those two is the interest rate that comes up.”

UND officials recognize this burden and encourage students to be prudent in what they take out, said Janelle Kilgore, director of the financial aid office.

“We’re always trying to keep costs down wherever possible,” she said.


Debt load

National reports commonly recognize UND as an affordable and low-cost university, but that hasn’t always been the case.


In 2012, UND and 19 other public colleges nationwide had “very high average debt levels” among 2011 graduates, according to the Project on Student Debt, an annual report by the Institute for College Access and Success.

The report compares student debt levels and college costs among 1,075 institutions that voluntarily submit the information. UND was compared to colleges with similar tuition and fee rates.

Although a majority of the colleges on the list reported in-state tuition and fees totaling less than $10,000, graduates from these colleges carried an average debt that ranged from $31,750 to $45,100, according to the report.

This year, the average debt of North Dakota graduates wasn’t included because the amount of usable information was less than 30 percent. Kilgore said UND didn’t participate because there were errors in the report it planned to submit and it’s currently trying to fix them.

Current data from UND shows students who graduated from fall 2011 to summer 2012 carried an average debt load of $23,465, which is lower than the average mentioned by the Project’s report from 2012, she said.

Of the 1,743 UND students who graduated during that time, 70 percent had some form of loan debt, she said.

Although the tuition cost didn’t factor into his decision to attend the university - he chose it because it has the subject areas he’s interested in and it’s close to home - Kelly said that he’s often thought about how he’ll pay for it.

“It runs through my head a lot,” he said.



Many options

As the financial aid process can be murky or intimidating to many, the most common question parents and students ask is, “Where do I start?” said Kilgore.

Scholarships are one avenue first-year students can pursue to ease costs, and at least 20 to 30 programs are available through UND that offer multiple scholarships. Financial officials typically advise students to check out service organizations, a parent’s employer and other community organizations that might offer these opportunities, she said.

Students should apply to as many as possible, even if they only meet one of the requirements, she said.

Other options include UND’s tuition payment plan, a savings account-like program that helps reduce loan debt, and seeking advice from the Financial Wellness office, a new program launched last year that helps students manage their finances.

One choice is the most obvious - students can borrow less. Just because a student is eligible for a full amount doesn’t mean they have to accept it, Kilgore said. Campus financial officials have been pushing students to seek employment on-campus or off if they need money for living expenses so they don’t have to pay it back in loans.

“After four years, it can add up,” Kilgore said.



Grades count

Academic performance can affect financial opportunities, too. Kelly said he’s acutely aware that freshman year grades will largely determine whether he’s eligible for scholarships his sophomore year, as well as his performance in other areas.

During college, he plans on holding a job and joining the Air Force ROTC, a military program that helps prepare students for a career. After his freshman year, he could sign a contract with the ROTC that will help pay his tuition and give him a better opportunity for applying for more scholarships, he said.

Overall, Kelly and his family didn’t find the financial aid process that challenging.

“The biggest challenge (now) is keeping up my grades and getting help with classes,” he said.

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