COD offers attractive alternative to ease student debt

Student debt cancellation and free college are two topics frequently in the headlines.

With student debt skyrocketing during the past decade, the conversation is heating up.

According to the Federal Reserve, Americans held $1.6 trillion in student loans in 2019, which is more than double the $770 billion in student loans held at the end of 2009. More than half the young adults who went to college in 2018 assumed debt.

Several states are trying to address the issue in varying ways. Illinois lawmakers enacted the Illinois Student Loan Bill of Rights, which protects borrowers from being misled or ignored by companies servicing their loans.

At the end of January, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers signed an executive order to create a state task force that will research mounting student debt and the pressure it places on students.

Unfortunately, the fallout of the "student debt crisis" is already being felt. According to a report by Country Financial, 67% of college-educated renters in Illinois who are 34 or younger said student loans are keeping them from buying a home.

The escalating debt is also changing attitudes toward higher education. A Gallup poll showed the number of people who view college education as "very important" fell from 70% in 2013 to 51% in 2019.

The irony is that my colleagues and I continue to hear from our legislators and business leaders that an educated workforce is essential for a healthy economy. Some industries continue to have difficulty filling open positions and are turning to us for answers.

It is a shame that people are unable to fully pursue their career and personal goals because of this financial burden. It keeps them from taking full advantage of the benefits that typically come with a college education.

Being fiscally responsible must be a key consideration when making the decision about where to attend college. Sometimes the choice of college is based upon prestige or "bragging rights," but is this worth going into debt for 20 years - or even longer?

This is where College of DuPage can help. According to the American Association of Community Colleges, the average annual cost of tuition and fees at community colleges is $3,347, compared to $9,139 at four-year institutions. Of course, the cost of tuition at some schools is far higher.

What makes College of DuPage a wise choice is the high quality of education the student obtains with affordable tuition. COD offers state-of-the-art facilities with expert faculty and outstanding staff.

In fact, I encouraged my three children to consider COD unless they had a sound reason for going elsewhere. In the end, they all came to COD first and are glad they did.

I understand that even our affordable tuition can be a challenge for some people. COD does its best to provide financial help wherever possible.

For example, academically gifted students can apply for aid through our Scholars Awards program. Presidential Scholars in this program can receive full funding for 64 credit hours After completing their studies with us, these students are well positioned to transfer to a four-year school and complete a bachelor's degree.

The college recently introduced the COD Succeeds Scholarship, designed to help students striving for academic success, but also having costs not covered by other types of financial aid.

This past fall, 180 current students were selected to receive the scholarship based on application essays, at least moderate academic success and financial need. Awards ranged from $500 to $2,000 to offset tuition, reduce loan debt or cover books and supplies.

The College of DuPage Foundation annually funds an array of scholarships. Last year, the foundation awarded 597 scholarships totaling nearly $600,000.

Often these scholarships are the financial assistance that prevents students from going into debt, helps them avoid working multiple jobs to pay for college and generally keeps their dreams of higher education alive.

We have many agreements in place for seamless transfer to and scholarship opportunities at four-year institutions. Our 3+1 programs provide students in specific programs a way to obtain bachelor's degrees from partner institutions that offer their upper-level classes on our campus at a highly competitive tuition rate.

The underlying theme associated with the recent discussions about free tuition and student loan forgiveness is access to college. Being smart about financing a college degree or certificate is essential to achieve long-term goals.

Whether you are a traditional-age student, returning adult student or a parent whose child is ready for college, discussing costs and realistic options is crucial before making a selection.

College of DuPage has always been a smart investment when it comes to the pursuit of higher education. Remember that affordability does not mean you sacrifice quality, because College of DuPage offers both.

Crushing student loans can be avoided while you pursue your dreams. I invite you to visit our campus and see what we offer.

• Brian Caputo is the president of the College of DuPage. His column appears monthly in Neighbor.

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