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With South Dakota topping the list for student debt, colleges offer tips on minimizing financial burden

Attending college or a technical school doesn’t have to mean incurring a large amount of student debt, according to officials from Mitchell Technical Institute and Dakota Wesleyan University.

A recent study by wallethub.com indicated South Dakota as the No. 1 state for students with the highest amount of student debt. The organization compared all 50 states and the District of Columbia based on 12 key measures of indebtedness and earning opportunities. The data set ranges from average student debt to unemployment rate among the population aged 25 to 34 to share of students with past-due loan balances.

While South Dakota may top the list — neighboring states Iowa and Minnesota also rank No. 5 and No. 6, respectively — experts said there are ways to ensure college-bound students don’t saddle themselves with more debt than they can handle.

Julie Brookbank, associate to the president of Mitchell Technical Institute, said there are a number of factors that can impact a student’s ability to repay loans. One such factor is the employability of recent graduates.

“From the perspective of a technical education, students who graduate in this economy have excellent employment opportunities,” Brookbank said. "Therefore, the money they spend on education is an investment, and they can hopefully use the money they borrow to accelerate their career and allow them to get that debt paid down."

Brookbank said about 85% to 90% of students at MTI utilize some financial aid. That is likely a higher percentage than generations past, she said, as the cost of education has gone up over the years. Information from the United States Department of Education indicates that the median debt for a student in a two-year program at a South Dakota technical school is $12,000, she said.

“I think it’s really different now. I had some student loans and paid them back in about seven years. It’s a very different story today,” Brookbank said. “But when you look at the employment statistics, graduates are getting jobs that I believe allow them to repay that debt. Then they can move on to things like home ownership.”

The key to managing student debt, she said, is to be knowledgeable on the subject and study the options one has when seeking financial solutions. The fewer loans and aid a student has to take, the easier it will be to pay off.

“My first advice is to do your homework. Be a good consumer and comparison shop. Find the best educational fit, but also look for what is realistically affordable for you,” Brookbank said.

The student can control the path they take for their education, Brookbank said. One option to consider would be attending a technical school or community college first, entering the workforce, and then returning to school for another degree after their finances have stabilized.

“I would say if you are looking at a technical education, take a look at the occupations. You should find an occupational path for you and then figure out the cost,” she said.

And it never hurts to start planning for school early. Building a nest egg for school can help take the edge off the financial impact of working toward a degree.

“Try to have a little savings to start with. Always have a little cushion, because you don’t want to be operating that close to that financial edge,” Brookbank said.

Mary Alexander, director of financial aid at Dakota Wesleyan University, said 100% of full-time, traditional, on-campus students at DWU utilize some type of financial aid. She also said students and parents should be thinking about school costs well before they send out college applications.

High school guidance counselors are an excellent resource of information and advice, she said.

“If they are a first-time college student and still in high school, we always tell them to work with their high school guidance counselor, as they’re going to be the resource with information,” Alexander said. “We always tell them to make sure their counselor is their best friend in high school. Check with them often and get that information.”

There also may be scholarship opportunities that are not necessarily obvious to a first-time college student, she said.

“We encourage them to check into resources like church affiliation, service clubs and parents’ employers,” Alexander said. “Sometimes there are benefits they may not even be aware of.”

Dakota Wesleyan maintains a scholarship website under the financial aid tab of its website. The school posts scholarships that are pertinent to the school’s student body based on what the school offers for majors, she said.

The site also includes a scholarship search engine that returns potential options for students based on a brief survey, she said.

When a student secures funding for school, Brookbank said. it is wise to only use that money for the purpose it was loaned and find other areas to save money. Finding economical living accommodations and living frugally can go a long way to keeping debt down.

“Carefully consider how much you can borrow. Find a living situation where you don’t have to use that loan money. If you get that loan check and feel like it’s more than you need, turn it back in. Nothing says you have to keep that money,” Brookbank said.

Meeting with students set to graduate about their financial standing is another tradition that can help students navigate the post-college world of loan repayment, she said.

“At the end of their academic career, we sit down one on one with graduating seniors and we do loan exit counseling. We remind them who their lender is, how to contact them and payment options,” Alexander said.

Alexander said she would like to see South Dakota establish a state grant program. Unlike loans, grants do not need to be repaid by the student and can be a helpful part of the equation in the education finance formula. The state grant idea has been discussed at the state level before, she said, but hopefully more progress will be made during future legislative sessions.

“We don’t have a state grant program in South Dakota. It started in the state legislature this past spring, and I believe they’re working to bring it up again in the next legislative session,” she said.

And while schools do what they can to assist students manage their school loans, the schools themselves do what they can to keep costs affordable for the student body.

“I think MTI is really concerned about educational costs, and we do everything we can to hold those fees down. We frequently meet with instructors to talk about book costs and how students can avoid the cost of a brand new textbook. We don’t have control over the tuition, but we try to keep a hand on that. As a school, it is a responsibility of ours to not just build up the cost on the backs of what students pay,” Brookbank said.

In the end, Brookbank said, know your loans and financial situation, and pay down the debt accordingly.

“It’s no different than paying attention to what your mortgage payment is going to be. Make your payments and don’t fall behind. And if you do get in trouble, visit your financial adviser,” she said.

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