Op-Ed about student loan debt in Georgia for the AJC

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Jessica D. Johnson is founder of the Scholarship Academy, a nonprofit organization that helps low-income/first-generation families create college funding plans and increase their eligibility for private scholarship funds. She serves on the GEAR UP Georgia (Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program) leadership team and the Atlanta Youth Commission.

In this column, Johnson discusses a three-part series, Debt Without Degree, produced by the Hechinger Report in collaboration with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The recent series examined college costs, student debt and HOPE Scholarships in Georgia.

You can read the first story on the untapped HOPE Scholarship surplus here. You can read the second story here about the impact of college costs and debt on students and the state. You can read the third story here about college affordability in Georgia.

By Jessica D. Johnson

For Georgia’s college students, this week is the traditional add/drop period, or, as I like to refer to it, “Raise enough money to keep your classes from being purged” week.

Over the last few weeks, the Hechinger “Debt Without Degree” series in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has profiled students who have fallen through the financial aid cracks, and who are making life-altering decisions about whether or not to stay in college or drop out because they simply can’t come up with the money to meet expenses.

While the stories may have shocked some, the realities of the student stories ring all too familiar for the Georgia college counselors and families struggling to keep their students enrolled.

As a national scholarship expert and executive director of the Scholarship Academy, a nonprofit that helps students secure private scholarships, I dread answering my phone at the beginning of each semester because I know I’ll hear pleas from scores of Georgia students desperately looking for urgent help to meet financial aid gaps. At some universities, balances as low as $250 will get students purged from the system before the first day of class. At private institutions, students with an unpaid $1,500 balance could be sent home by mid-terms.

With the rising tuition and fees at state institutions, the shifts in HOPE eligibility and funding levels, and the absence of a much-debated statewide need-based aid program, it is time to admit Georgia is in the crux of a financial aid crisis. If the intangible losses of more than 5,000 students dropping out of Georgia’s four-year institutions in a three-year span in large part due to funding won’t get our attention, perhaps the financial losses will. According to the American Institute for Research, college dropouts cost our nation $4.5 billion in lost income and taxes.

It would be easy to point the blame at legislators who have neglected to allocate HOPE reserves or activate a statewide need-based scholarship program. As an advocate of financial aid accountability, I would argue none of the proposed solutions alone can solve our state’s college funding shortages. The reality is that everyone is at fault.

Families should do more research on four-year financial feasibility before making a college choice. Far too many families wait until it’s too late, and let the financial aid process happen to them, instead of proactively making financial aid work for them.

College advisors must stop the cookie-cutter approach to college admissions: laser-focusing on college admission numbers and relying on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid  or FAFSA as the primary financial aid support. Low-income and first-generation students need individualized supports to map out a realistic college funding plan before they enroll.

Universities have a responsibility to be transparent about unpaid balances that would cause them to drop students from their enrollment.  An easy step in the right direction would be addressing the policies regarding outside scholarships so that they don’t inadvertently penalize students by reducing university aid.

To be fair, there are a host of colleges such as Georgia State that offer Panther Retention Grants to support students’ financial matriculation, and many schools, such as Atlanta Technical College, have established hardship funds that award students up to a thousand dollars toward their expenses to alleviate financial burdens.

The truth is, there’s no one solution to college financing in Georgia, but as a new wave of families begin to click “submit” next month on those complicated financial aid forms for the 2018-2019 school year, more than the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is at stake. We’ve all got to do our part to make some sense of this college dollars dilemma.

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