Copyright 2014

With the cost of college rising, counselors advise families to consider all of their options

Newly minted Concord High School graduate Anish Darjee has a few months until he begins his studies in computer science at New England College in Henniker.

Darjee is excited for college, but a little worried about meeting new people; he only knows a few fellow Concord High graduates going to the same school.

"It seems fun, sounds fun," he said nervously. "I hope it's as fun as it sounds and looks."

Many new high school graduates have the same concerns about making friends and what the dining hall food will taste like.

But more are starting to think about what happens when they leave college and get their first student loan bill, which in some cases can be nearly $1,000 a month.

It's a scary amount of money, and the time to think about it is sooner rather than later, education officials say.

"Now they are graduates and they are anxious to be out there on their own, they're anxious to drive a newer car than what they drove in college, and they suddenly realize they have a ton of student loan debt," said Tori Berube, vice president of college planning and community development at the nonprofit Granite State Management and Resources. "Push comes to shove, it's debt. It's a lot of debt."

Darjee won a prestigious scholarship that takes $27,000 off his annual school costs. But New England College, a private school, still costs about double that for a full year's tuition, room and board.

The cost of a college education in New Hampshire is expensive compared with the rest of the country. The state has the second-highest average debt level in the country at $33,410, according to a 2014 student debt study by the nonprofit Institute for College Access and Success.

The same study found 76 percent of New Hampshire college graduates will leave school with some amount of debt, more than any other state in the nation.

Student debt and the cost of college have serious implications in New Hampshire, which is facing an exodus of young people and a growing workforce development problem. Many of the seven candidates for governor have spoken of businesses struggling to find qualified workers to fill open jobs.

"I think it's absolutely critical. . . . to ensure that we can meet these workforce needs," said Edward MacKay, director of the Division of Higher Education at the New Hampshire Department of Education.

Berube and her colleagues at Granite State Management and Resources offer free counseling to local students and families, and are trying to get families and students to think about the cost of college the moment they start looking at schools.

Fellow counselor Jay Hauser said he tries to get some students and families to think beyond the prestige of attending an Ivy League or small liberal arts college and consider what kind of an education they can get without breaking the bank. He likes to say it doesn't matter what bumper sticker you can put on your car or what school crest is on your sweatshirt if you can get a similar education at a lower-cost school.

"I feel the most important part of the college process is the beginning," Hauser said. "It's not just four years of college, it's 40 years down the road."

Cost of college in New Hampshire

New Hampshire students largely attend in-state public institutions. Nine of the top 10 schools in which Granite State students enrolled are in the state, with just one - Northern Essex Community - over the border in Massachusetts, according to a report compiled by the state Department of Education.

More students attend the University of New Hampshire in Durham than any other school. In-state tuition there is $17,624, and add room and board on top of that and you're looking at $28,562 per year.

MacKay, who oversees higher education at the state Department of Education, said there's a direct correlation between the lack of state funding for public college and the high cost of tuition.

The state slashed its support of the university system in fiscal year 2012-13 by 49 percent, or $32.5 million, which has driven up the cost of tuition.

"It provides an additional challenge to New Hampshire residents who want to send their sons and daughters to New Hampshire institutions, because the price tag is higher," MacKay said. "I certainly understand and appreciate that's a burden on New Hampshire families."

High costs have had other consequences as well. Last year was the first year UNH had more out-of-state students than in-state students. Those students pay significantly more, a total of $42,362 a year for tuition and room and board.

MacKay said he thinks UNH has had to look outside the state to help subsidize in-state tuition and pay for new programs.

"Because they're tuition-driven, they've had to look to individuals who can afford to pay," he said.

Multiple ways to a degree

When a student applies to several colleges, there's usually one or two "financial safety schools" in the mix, Berube said.

"For some families, Keene (State and) UNH are the financial safety schools on their list, but for some families . . . their financial safety school may be a community college," Berube said. "And that's okay, because there's a pathway."

The pathway she's referring to is the recently established relationship between the University System of New Hampshire and the Community College System of New Hampshire that allows graduates from any of the state's seven community colleges to enroll automatically in a four-year school.

Berube and Hauser said they see more families considering that option because it drastically lowers the cost of school for the first two years and can allow students to live at home and work a part-time job, further saving and earning money.

With all of the focus on affordable college in the 2016 presidential primary, Hauser and Berube say they see more parents thinking about the cost of college more.

This is in part because they are increasingly in the mix when it comes to private student loans. Since the recession, the majority of private student loans require two people to sign, and the co-signer is often a parent.

Berube and Hauser have seen parents in New Hampshire who have taken on the debt and are facing hundreds of thousands in loan payments.

They advise families to do their homework about loans well in advance of deadlines to apply for them. They also encourage families to apply to as many scholarships as possible to try to offset college costs.

The New Hampshire Charitable Foundation awards more than $5 million to 1,700 students each year, and there are many other state and national foundations awarding money to New Hampshire students.

"The education debt of our young people nationally and in New Hampshire is a great concern," said Katie Merrow, vice president of Community Impact at the foundation.

Berube and Hauser admit that the cost of college can seem daunting, but they remind parents that higher education is an investment in their children's future.

"I think that college offers growth," Hauser said, adding that the best part for parents and counselors is seeing kids grow up and develop through their studies, research and internships. "You're giving your students more than a degree. You walk away with so much more."

And they tell parents there are many ways to finance it.

"I think that the message is, college can happen for anybody," Berube said. "It's just figuring out what is the best way to do it long term. What is the most responsible way to do it so that you can be successful in your life, so that you can follow your dreams."

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)