Colleges push money smarts

  • Article by: KAITLYN WALSH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 17, 2012 - 7:23 PM

Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota are touting fiscal responsibility to help students avoid crippling debt.

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Abby Hilbelink is an Augsburg College junior who will graduate with about $60,000 in loans. She is studying music and works as a manager at Jimmy John’s. According to the state, close to three-quarters of Minnesota students who earned bachelor’s degrees in 2010 had loans averaging $29,100.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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It's hard to get college students pumped-up about fiscal responsibility, but Augsburg College and other schools around the state are trying. Frugal living and the evils of credit card debt are a few lessons Augsburg hopes to get through to students through its program "Money Matters."

"Live Like a Student Now So You Don't Have to Later" is the University of Minnesota's pithily named equivalent to teach students how to be smart with their cash. Dozens of other schools statewide have similar programs, some popping up within the last year. They have become increasingly important as tuition rises and students rack up tens of thousands in loans and other debt.

It's Carly Eichhorst's job to help students cut out excessive spending, as associate director of financial services at Augsburg.

Cars are money-guzzlers, she said, and are usually unnecessary with the Twin Cities' extensive public transportation system.

Students need to prioritize their spending, she said. Which is more important: another latté or cash for bus fare?

"One of the traps is that students don't know what to focus on," Eichhorst said.

Many students live outside their means, according to Darryl Dahlheimer, project manager of Lutheran Social Services, a nonprofit that offers free financial counseling at the U.

"A lot of concerned parents, teachers and counselors want us to push wants-versus-needs conversations," he said. "What's tricky is that it is very individual. Are contact lenses a want or a need?"

Credit card debt is a slippery slope, he said, as interest and late fees can accumulate fast. In 2010, 53 percent of undergraduates attending Minnesota colleges had credit cards, and 38 percent of them carried a balance from month to month, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"Credit cards encourage overspending past what you can owe," Dahlheimer said. "The world is full of bear traps that we don't have to put our foot into."

Consuming confessions

During Augsburg's recent "Money Week," students scribbled down reasons why they're strapped for cash. Their quotes were strung by clothespins along the skyway, displaying their dirty laundry for passersby.

"I spend all my hard-earned [money] on undeserving women," said one.

"Cigs are expensive."

A common theme: "This school took all of mine."

Some students find the call for restraint ironic, as many are deep in debt with tuition bills. For the 2011-12 academic year, the published full-time tuition for Augsburg undergraduates is $29,802. Next year, that will bump up another 5 percent, to $31,292.

"It does seem a little odd that they charge you so much on school, then say, 'Don't spend money, by the way,'" said Abby Hilbelink, a junior studying music education at Augsburg. She will have $60,000 in debt; by comparison, the average for 2010 Augsburg graduates was $24,000, according to data collected by the Project on Student Debt.

"It gets tough to do anything extra besides school," said Hilbelink. When she's not in class or playing flute at rehearsals, she's slapping together sandwiches as a manager at Jimmy John's. "I have to work a lot more often than I'd like to."

'Need to think about choices'

On average, 71 percent of Minnesota students who received a bachelor's degree in 2010 had loans totaling $29,100, according to the state's Office of Higher Education.

"Students are taking on more and more of that kind of debt," said Julie Edstrom, vice president of enrollment management at Augsburg. "When they graduate they are going to face the repayment of those student loans. They need to think about the choices they make right now."

Edstrom said students are encouraged to borrow only what they need and on a few occasions, urged to take the last resort: Get credits cheaper at public schools.

Few students have had to struggle like Whitney Blount Smith, 20, who was homeless before attending Augsburg. Her father, the family's primary earner, died when she was 5. Unable to afford a home anymore, her family "house hopped" and sometimes slept outside.

Now Smith, a social welfare major, only buys the necessities, even if that means she opts for sweatpants over trendy jeans.

"I don't want to have to experience homelessness again," said Smith. "There's no point in having new clothes if you don't have a closet to put them in."

Kaitlyn Walsh is a University of Minnesota journalism student on assignment for the Star Tribune.

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