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    LOAN: A Good Return on Investment or a Four-Letter Word?

    Christian colleges are addressing concerns about student loan debt.

    Janna Jones

    The numbers on college debt in America are staggering:

    • $1.2 trillion: The approximate amount of outstanding student loan debt in 2013—second only to mortgages in household debt
    • 7 million: The estimated number of Americans who are currently in default on a student loan
    • 40 percent: The number of American households headed by someone under 35 that have student loan debt and are affected by student loan servicing

    Broken down to an individual level, the average debt load per student for the Class of 2012 was $29,400.

    Graduates of Christian colleges are in the same boat. "The best source of comparative data is through the yearly Council for Christian Colleges and Universities' (CCCU) financial aid survey," says Greg Gearhart, director of financial aid at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. "For the Class of 2012, the average debt for graduates from all CCCU schools was $28,712."

    But while the numbers are sobering, not everyone who has student loans is in crisis. The high-profile stories of college graduates working at fast-food restaurants for minimum wage aren't an accurate reflection of all students. Christian college representatives don't see these kinds of scenarios playing out with the majority of their graduates; many of their schools have a high percentage of employment following graduation.

    "In a post-graduation survey conducted by our career center, 95 percent of the Class of 2011 respondents indicated they were employed or in graduate/professional programs within six to nine months after graduation," says Gearhart. The same is true of graduates at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, where "over 90 percent of graduates from the Class of 2012 were employed or in graduate/professional programs with an acceptance rate to medical, dental, law school, and all other graduate programs of 94 percent" according to Ed Kerestly, director of student financial services.

    This is the case even at Houghton College (Houghton, New York), which has responded to student loan concerns with a new Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP). According to Eric Currie, vice president for enrollment management, "95 percent of our graduates find employment or graduate school placement within six months of graduating." So why the need for the LRAP?

    Lifting the Weight

    Houghton College has established the LRAP for every one of their incoming students in Fall 2014. For graduates in 2018, that means there will be funds available to pay part or all of their loan payments until they're gainfully employed and reach a certain income level. Once limited to very specific types of graduate schools or service professions, LRAPs are gaining ground.

    "There is a concern nationally about the cost of higher education. Parents and college students alike are asking the same question: 'Is college worth the student loan debt?' We felt a need to answer this question by ultimately putting our money where our mouth is," says Currie. "We have always felt confident about the type of education Houghton offers … we see the LRAP as a safety net for interested students to pursue their passions regardless of income following graduation."

    The government, private lenders, and individual schools are answering concerns over student loan debt in a variety of ways. Federal assistance is available on certain types of loans through Income-Based Repayment (IBR) programs, which lower a borrower's monthly payment (often by extending the life of the loan), as well as Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) programs for those working in certain fields such as medicine or education.

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