By Dr. Derek Brandes
In recent conversations with high school juniors and seniors, one of their top concerns about seeking higher education is funding their education with student loans.
Long gone are the days when you could work a summer job that would cover the cost of going to a college or university. A 30-year divesture from the state to the student pocketbook is reaping some serious consequences. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, as of September 2016 outstanding student loan balances increased to $1.279 trillion.
Walla Walla Community College has always had a concern about the cost of attending college and financial barriers to degree completion as the majority of our students receive financial assistance. Our college consistently has ranked among the highest in Washington State’s Community and Technical College system in the percent of students receiving need-based financial aid (58% vs. 38% statewide).
Walla Walla Community College was one of 19 colleges chosen to participate in a national project called the Working Students Success Network (WSSN). The goals of the project were to help students focus on developing and following achievable career plans that lead to living wage jobs; find all the available resources to improve students’ financial stability while attending college; become financially literate; and, learn how to build assets.
For the past three years, a group of committed WWCC faculty and staff have worked on developing a number of strategies as part of WSSN.
We now have ten staff who have been certified as Career Advisors to help students decide on a career path and to work with them on educational plans. Declaring a career path and having an educational plan greatly reduces student costs by ensuring that students are taking courses efficiently.
Four members of our staff have been certified as financial coaches. Our Financial Coaches work with students to develop budgets, ensure that students are spending their financial aid money wisely, and help students strategize how to increase their income and decrease expenses. While many students don’t seek financial coaching, often students will be referred to them by other staff on campus.
As part of the WSSN program, we discovered that often students were using student loans to pay for expenses like child care, transportation, and other monthly expenses that the College or a community partner may be able to fund. We have a benefit screening process and have established funding triage groups to determine how we can best bundle resources to meet students’ financial needs and decrease as much as possible student loans.
Our TRIO program, which is a federal grant program serving first generation, low income, and students with disabilities, has worked with WWCC faculty to develop a for-credit class called, “Financial Literacy and College.” While the class serves TRIO students, they are opening it up for other students to take as well.
In the near future, we will be embedding financial literacy information into new student orientation, first year seminar courses, and advisor certification training. We are developing service maps to better help students identify where to go to access financial resources.
The WWCC Foundation donors have been very generous with student scholarships. Last year the College received $645,000 in scholarship donations and also received $186,000 in emergency assistance funding to assist our students in overcoming short-term financial barriers that might prevent them from completing degrees.
WWCC is still a wise investment. According to recent research on the economic impact of community and technical colleges in Washington State, students who attended in 2015 will receive a 12.8% return on their financial investment in cumulative lifetime earnings.
We encourage all students to complete scholarship applications, fill out financial aid applications, and to ask what additional resources the college can provide to help fund their education.