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The leaders of Spartanburg County's five colleges came together Tuesday night to discuss the financial concerns about paying for college and managing student debt.
Advice for parents and students was offered at the panel event hosted by the Herald-Journal. College leaders spoke about initiatives that give students guidance about paying for school and how financial decisions can impact their future.
University of South Carolina Upstate Interim Chancellor Mary Anne Fitzpatrick said student debt problems have been seen across the country, but primarily can be found in three groups of students — those who didn't finish college, those who attend graduate school and students who went to for-profit schools.
"While student debt is a concern for all of us, it has to do with going to school and not finishing, for the most part," she said. "That's a long-term issue, financially, because you don't have a way to pay back that debt."
Joining Fitzpatrick for the discussion were Spartanburg Methodist College President Scott Cochran, Spartanburg Community College President Henry Giles, Converse College President Krista Newkirk and Wofford College President Nayef Samhat.
The school leaders noted Spartanburg County is unusual because of the number of colleges it has, each with unique program offerings and a unique student body.
Wofford, Converse and USC Upstate are all largely four-year schools, while SCC and SMC serve students primarily during their first two years of college.
At SCC, tuition is low and college officials discourage students from taking out loans to pay for school, Giles said.
"I would say that if the only way you can get an education is by getting loans, take out the absolute minimum loan you can," Giles said. "You would be surprised if you started looking around, the other aid that's available."
Samhat encouraged students to see college as something that will provide a return by giving them the means to find a good job. "Debt you take in college is an investment, not a sunk cost," he said.
At SCC, many students work part time and study part time, Giles said. That allows a lot of students to provide themselves with a degree of financial aid, helping them pay tuition on their own.
Several members of the panel disagreed with the notion that liberal arts degrees are worth less because students struggle to find jobs or pay off student debt.
"Personally, I don't see people shying away from an industry because of the debt they're taking on," Cochran said.
Panelists all agreed that students have to be careful to balance financial concerns with working hard.
Newkirk said it's students' responsibility to keep scholarships by working to meet the minimum GPA required for the financial aid.
For students who do have to take out loans to pay for school, Cochran said they have to manage their finances carefully to prevent debt from becoming overwhelming.
"I've seen students that have taken on a tremendous amount of debt to go into an industry where they're going to make $25,000 or $30,000 a year for several years after, with no reasonable way of paying back that debt in a reasonable amount of time," he said. "That becomes a problem."