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The Depths of Student Loan Debt: How One Student Emerged and is Helping Others

MSU Assistant Director of Financial Aid Jacklynn Lewis overseas the processing of loans at the school, and helps operate their

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Inside the Office of Financial Aid at Missouri State University, call center staff equipped with a headset and computer field questions from students on the status of their loan, interest rates, or how to properly fill out their FAFSA.

It’s a call made often by students like Paris Kirksey, a junior theatre major at MSU, who are looking to learn about, avoid and overcome debt. You could say her eyes were bigger than her wallet when Kirksey, a St. Louis native and one of three children to a then single mother, enrolled at Stephens College, a private, women’s school in Columbia in fall 2011. Her grades did not meet the criteria for some of the school’s scholarships, and even after being approved for others, plus working a job; just one semester was enough to leave Kirksey 10,000 in debt. She recalls an overwhelming application process.

“I did not have the resources that I needed to go about filling out the applications. I didn’t have any type of guidance; I didn’t have any type of help. I have an older brother and he just graduated, but he got a full ride, so my mom never really had to go through financial problems or filling out applications because he got a full ride – they did everything for him,” Kirksey said.

That single semester at Stephens was enough for Kirksey, but not the end of her pursuit of a degree. After a one-year stint in junior college, Kirksey came to Missouri State. However, the financial issues followed. Her first year at the school, Kirksey’s mother, who had since married; got divorced, had a child, and lost her job within the same month.

“My financial aid was kind of based on her and her husband’s income. So by that income being out of the house, we didn’t have any income, so it was no way for me to stay at Missouri State.”

Enter Jacklynn Lewis, an assistant director of financial aid, who overseas the processing of loans at MSU. Inside her fourth-floor office of Carrington Hall, a sign reads “I will not default on my MSU Student Loans.” For Lewis, it’s a constant reminder of the battles students must overcome, and motivation to put students in the best position to succeed in paying down their debt. Lewis hired Kirksey, which helped stabilize the theatre major’s situation.  Much like Kirksey, the path to a degree wasn’t easy for Lewis, who vowed after her struggles to get accepted into school to help those trying to do the same.

“My goal after being told “no,” that I couldn’t get an education, was to find a way to help everyone I could come across get the education that they wanted. And financial aid seemed to be one of those great places where I could do that,” Lewis said.

Each year, Lewis’ office educates parents and students of the financial options and challenges through sessions like the FAFSA Frenzy, and through MSU’s financial literacy program, called Real LIFE (Literacy in Financing Your Education).

“We try to start with our freshmen, and explain to them how their finances are gonna work. How they need to plan and budget for being a college student, so they don’t have to live as a college student once they get out of school,” Lewis said.

Here, I observe a Real LIFE session before a group of MSU’s Greek life community, where students are presented with simple budget tips like keeping track of where your money is spent or how much can be saved if you avoid buying a coffee once a week. It also calculates the long-term costs of interest rates, and encourages students to use the money left over from their loan refund checks to pay back their current loans.

For Lewis, who has been working in the financial services division for roughly 20 years, the past five at Missouri State, she’s seen them all. From students who budget poorly, had everything given to them by their parents and don’t understand fiscal responsibility, to students who aren’t cut out for college at all. The latter, says Lewis, is a tough pill to swallow, but if the signs indicate that college isn’t for a particular student, it’s a necessary discussion to have.

“We can’t tell a student, ‘you shouldn’t be here.’ And I would never do that to anyone, I’m not going to break anyone’s heart or their dreams that way. But I will sit down with them and help them all I can to see the realities of life and the realities of their choices, so that maybe they can better review their choices and make a decision on their own.”

In addition to the Real LIFE program through MSU’s Financial Aid Office, Lewis says they offer lessons on, among other things, how to strengthen scholarship applications and credit card debt management.

So how successful are programs like Real LIFE and the various finance education offerings through not only MSU, but schools across the country? One way to measure that is through the US Department of Education, which calculates the cohort default rate, or the percentage of a school's borrowers who enter repayment on certain loans and then default, or fail to pay back. What was recently just a two year measurement now takes into account the three years after students graduate, which shows that 13.4 percent of the nation’s borrowers from 2009 are in default. At Missouri State, that number is 6.9 percent. Other public institutions like Joplin’s Missouri Southern State University shows a 12.2 percent default rate, while the University of Missouri-Columbia is only 3.9 percent. The Education Department lists Drury University, a private school in Springfield, at 14.2 percent, while Ozarks Technical Community College’s 3-year cohort default rate tops 21 percent.

“The default rate gets too high and the schools lose the eligibility to have federal aid for their students. So when a student is defaulting on student loan they’re not hurting just themselves, they’re hurting future students. The other half of that goes right back to our financial literacy program – educate, educate, educate.”

Lewis adds that a lot of these students who default were poor financial planners, and may have bitten off more than they can chew when it came to what they borrowed compared to the job and income expectations upon graduation.  For Paris Kirksey, her large debt following one semester at Stephens College came down to poor research, she says.

“I saw the school, it had my major, it specialized in my major, so I went. And so that’s one mistake I wish I had never made. Be prepared for it. Know the total costs before you go into the school. Make sure you have all your scholarships, and grants, and loans backed up, that way you have it, you’re not scrambling around in the middle of the semester figuring out how you’re gonna pay it off,” Kirksey said.

Although it’s probably seemed like years, it has been a rather quick recovery from Kirksey’s rough financial start to college. But it certainly wasn’t without some major hurdles. At one point, she was working three jobs to help pay down debt, and scrapping together other funds by selling her clothes, iPad, and TV.

Now, Kirksey says she’s on the path to pay off her debt from Stephen’s College before she completes her undergraduate degree at Missouri State, after which she hopes to attend graduate school at NYU.

With her mother getting divorced and losing her job, Kirksey was the victim of some financial hardships that were beyond her control. But who isn’t these days? Her hope is that current students and future college attendees take into account the finances they can control, and utilize the resources available to them both as a precaution and, if so, as a method to get you back on your feet.