Planning Ahead Can Help Reduce College Debt

LAS VEGAS, NM – Despite earning a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree, Joseph Dominguez left college without something many people feel is part of a university experience: debt.

“It’s freedom,” said Dominguez, a Highlands University alumnus. “Now that I’m in the work world, it’s beneficial to me since I’m not sending a part of my paycheck to pay student loans. I can save money.”

Despite tuition increases across the country, approximately 30 percent of college students graduate without debt, according to national statistics. With a little planning, students and their families can maximize their college investment and borrow less.

According to Emily Montoya, Highlands University’s director of the Office of Financial Aid, filling out a FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is the best place to start.

“Reading and completing the FAFSA might seem time consuming, but it opens the doors to helping finance a college education,” Montoya said.

One source of funding for higher education is the federal Pell Grant.

“A lot of people think their parents make too much money for them to receive a Pell Grant,” Montoya said. “There’s a federal methodology to determine a student’s eligibility based on a number of factors.”

“There’s more to financial aid than Pell Grants,” Montoya said. “Aid comes in the form of scholarships, work study and student loans. I would encourage everyone to apply for and accept scholarship awards.”

In addition to state scholarships like the Lottery Scholarship, the New Mexico Highlands University Foundation, a separate nonprofit arm of the university, maintains many donor-funded scholarships.

“You don’t have to be a straight-A student for many of the scholarships,” said Theresa Law, executive director of the Highlands Foundation. “Many of our donor-funded scholarships look at other factors such as ethnicity, geographic location, or fields of study.”

In addition to scholarships and grants, work-study positions and graduating as quickly as possible help students and their families save money.

“You have to plug away and take 15-18 hours a semester and take summer classes,” said Dominguez, who now oversees Highlands Outdoor Recreation Center. “Each year, many universities increase their tuition, so you’re avoiding those costs and you’re in the workforce earning money sooner.”

Dominguez said he feels too many students lose sight of their long-term goals at the expense of their education.

“If you stick it out living paycheck to paycheck when you’re in school so you can graduate with less debt, you’ll be ahead of the pack when you graduate,” Dominguez said.

Dominguez, who served as student body president, said getting involved on campus and seeking work-study and graduate assistantship opportunities not only makes the college experience more rewarding, but also helps students graduate with less debt.

“Getting involved on campus can propel you to different opportunities,” Dominguez said.