Bryce Nelson is excited he’s on track to graduate from UCF with relatively little student-loan debt.
The marketing junior relies on federal financial aid to cover tuition and housing, gets a little help from home, and has a campus work-study job. He’s on track to finish his undergraduate degree with less than $7,000 in student loans outstanding.
“I’m really grateful that I’m not graduating with a ton of debt,” said Nelson, 21, who is the first in his family to go to college. “I know people in their 40s still paying on student loans. Even though I have some debt I know I can pay it back very quickly because it is such a small amount. I most definitely will pay if off extremely quickly.”
But what of the alarming news students hear about the rising cost of college nationwide and how some graduates are crushed under the burden of large debt? It turns out that is not the story at UCF.
Federal statistics indicate that in the United States 42 million people owe $1.3 trillion in student-loan debt. The average student owes about $37,000 upon graduation, but in breaking down the numbers, most of that debt is concentrated among borrowers attending for-profit and non-selective institutions.
At UCF, where one out of every four students is a first-generation attendee, students graduate with some of the lowest debt in the nation. Almost half (44 percent percent) graduate with no debt. Of those who do incur debt – including those who transferred to UCF carrying some student loans – the average is $22,000. That’s about half the debt of graduates at for-profit institutions.
Those numbers help to explain why UCF is consistently ranked among the nation’s best values by Kiplinger and The Princeton Review. As one of the largest universities in the country with 64,000 students, UCF is ranked among the top 100 public universities nationwide by U.S. News & World Report.
UCF students such as Nelson say they feel they are borrowing smartly while earning a degree, and taking on less college-related debt as a result. Nelson, for example, borrowed $3,000 during his freshman year for living expenses and tuition. He took out two loans for $2,000 each over the past year to cover his living expenses, partly because he missed the early deadline to apply for financial aid, he said.
“I just wasn’t paying attention,” Nelson said. “It’s not like UCF didn’t tell me, either. There were a bunch of emails and reminders. So I missed out on a lot of money,” he said.
Alicia Keaton, director of the Office of Student Financial Assistance, said she asks students to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) early — by December — in order to improve the chances of receiving the financial aid for the following Fall semester.
When that’s not enough help, UCF has a program called A2O (Access to Scholarship Opportunities) that allows students to apply for a host of campus-wide scholarships using one application. Some 14,000 students used the service last year.
Keaton’s office advises students with two major tips: Only borrow what you need, and total student loans should not exceed half of your expected annual starting salary.
While here, students can take advantage of UCF’s ¢ent$ible Knight$ program, which started in 2015 to teach financial literacy. Through 10 university services, including the Student Academic Resource Center, the Career Services Office and the FAIRWINDS Credit Union, students receive coordinated-debt counseling and materials to help them make the best financial choices. Keaton said she sees more students making the most of work-study jobs and scholarships, which, along with sensible spending, helps keep borrowing low.
And graduating is important. The majority of UCF alumni who earned a bachelor’s degree with no debt or less than $10,000 debt later reported higher levels of financial well-being. A degree also increases income-earning potential by 66 percent. Students who graduate rarely default on student loans, too.
Nelson said he benefited from the good advice from Student Financial Services early in his college years, which he credits with helping him learn the basics – apply early through FAFSA, borrow only what you need, seek out work-study jobs on campus, and make the most of any scholarships available.
Last year, Nelson held a work-study job at the FAIRWINDS Alumni Center. Now, he works for Briant Coleman, assistant vice president for communications and strategic initiatives. The pay from his work-study job, he said, will cover the costs of studying abroad this summer in Verona, Italy.
“I tell people to be aware of all the school has to offer and the requirements for financial aid. Don’t miss priority deadline. When you get those emails, read them in full, don’t just skim them,” he said.
Still, he’s thankful about his experience at UCF even though he has debt – because his education is a long-term investment.
“The truth is I’m so fortunate,” said Nelson. “I’m in college and I’m going to study in Italy this summer. It’s only my second time flying anywhere. It’s happening because I’m in school and I have these opportunities. I know I’m in a good situation and all of this is worth it.”