Kaitlen Bird, 18, and her father, Joe Bird, look over her acceptance letters from Colorado Mesa University and its music department in their Craig home. In light of decreasing employment rates for recent college graduates, Bird said he hopes he can help Kaitlen avoid taking out loans to pay for her education.

Photo by Bridget Manley

Kaitlen Bird, 18, and her father, Joe Bird, look over her acceptance letters from Colorado Mesa University and its music department in their Craig home. In light of decreasing employment rates for recent college graduates, Bird said he hopes he can help Kaitlen avoid taking out loans to pay for her education.

For parents with college-bound teens, dodging debt is an uphill battle

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Valerie Jarvis, a Moffat County High School science teacher, helps Gage Gould, an MCHS freshman, put plastic wrap over his solar convection oven Friday at the high school. Jarvis took out about $100,000 in student loans to pay for the last year of her bachelor’s program at Iowa State University and the entirety of her master’s degree from the University of Southern California.

By the numbers ...

Colorado student debt in 2010:

• Average student debt (includes public and private four-year institutions) — $22,017

• State ranking (1 being the highest) — 32

2010 student debt by college :

Adams State College:

— Average graduate debt: $22,915

— Percentage of graduates with debt: 72

Colorado Mesa University:

— Average debt: $18,966

— Percentage with debt: 65

Colorado School of Mines:

— Average debt: $28,126

— Percentage with debt: 58

Colorado State University:

— Average debt: $21,224

— Percentage with debt: 60

Colorado State University at Pueblo:

— Average debt: $20,141

— Percentage with debt: 64

Fort Lewis College:

— Average debt: $17,371

— Percentage with debt: 61

Metropolitan State College of Denver:

— Average debt: $25,774

— Percentage with debt: 57

University of Colorado at Boulder:

— Average debt: $19,758

— Percentage with debt: 43

University of Colorado at Colorado Springs:

— Average debt: $21,551

— Percentage with debt: 63

University of Colorado at Denver:

— Average debt: $17,823

— Percentage with debt: 59

Western State College of Colorado:

— Average debt: $18,600

— Percentage with debt: 75

Source: The Project on Student Debt Note: Data not available for U.S. Air Force Academy and University of Northern Colorado.

Possessing a musical ear and an acceptance letter from Colorado Mesa University, Kaitlen Bird is ready to strike out on her own.

But, whether her father’s financial resources are ready to bear the cost of her education — roughly $16,200 a year for a full course load, housing and a meal plan — is unclear.

“Right now, that hasn’t all been decided,” Joe Bird said when asked if he and Kaitlen are considering college loans.

He hopes a mutual fund he set up for Kaitlen when she was born —just as he did for her sisters, Rebekah, 15, and Christa, 13 — will be enough to pay for her bachelor’s degree in music.

He doesn’t rule out student loans, but putting either himself or his daughter into debt is an option he hopes he never has to ponder.

“We’re honestly trying to figure out how to stay away from student loans as much as possible,” he said.

If Kaitlen succeeds in graduating from college debt-free, she will be among the minority.

Sixty-five percent of Colorado Mesa University students graduated with student loan debt in 2010.

On average, graduates left the college with nearly $19,000 in loans, according to the latest figures from The Project on Student Debt, an initiative of the Institute for College Access and Success.

On average, students at public and private four-year institutions in Colorado had about $22,000 in student loans that year, ranking the state 32nd in the nation for highest college debt, the agency’s website reported.

Staying out of debt is more than a matter of cost, Bird said.

He’s heard grim stories about young men and women who face years of student loan repayments, or worse, emerge from college with hefty student debt and have difficulty finding a job, he said.

He doesn’t want the same for Kaitlen.

“I know there’s a balance in there somewhere where she has to take responsibility, but I also don’t need to set her up for failure, either,” he said.

For parents who don’t have as many resources as he has, “I can see how you’d get between a rock and a hard place,” he said.

They, like him, want their children to have the education they need, he said.

If the money’s not there, debt may be the only option.

‘One-two punch’

Earning a college diploma without going into debt is an increasingly thin tightrope for parents and students.

On average, the state covered about two-thirds of the costs at public universities in the early 2000s, while parents and students paid the rest, said Chad Marturano, director of legislative affairs for the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

“That has basically flipped,” he said.

Now, students and families are bearing the bulk of the expense, mostly in tuition.

If they don’t have the financial means to pay for college, they often turn to student loans to make up the difference, he said.

Valerie Jarvis, an MCHS physics, chemistry and earth science teacher, knows what awaits borrowers after graduation.

After taking advantage of a one-year grace period, she recently began paying off about $100,000 in student loans, accumulated mostly from her last year of her bachelor’s program at Iowa State University and her master’s in education from the University of Southern California, where she graduated in May 2011.

“It’s a chunk of change,” she said.

Paying off the debt may take Jarvis 20 to 25 years, but that’s a “conservative estimate,” she said.

She’s not overly concerned about the impact her student debt may have on her financial future in the long term.

She has a wide skillset, and her bachelor’s degree in physics opens doors to a variety of careers, she said.

“It’s not too much of a worry as long as I’m willing to move,” Jarvis said.

So why is college so expensive? In Colorado, the answer lies in the glum algorithm of recession economics.

The state pays for higher education through its general fund, which relies primarily on sales and income taxes, Marturano said.

In a sluggish economy, fewer people with jobs means fewer people are spending money and fewer incomes to tax.

Obligations like Medicaid and K-12 education, which the state is constitutionally required to fund, leave little left for colleges and universities.

“If you were to talk to any elected official down here, they don’t want to cut higher education,” Marturano said. “They’re just forced to because it’s their only option.”

But slashed budgets they have, and in significant proportions.

Since fiscal year 2008-09 through fiscal year 2012-13, the state will have cut public higher education funding by more than 27 percent, Marturano said.

At the same time, college enrollment escalates during a recession as more workers seek to sharpen their skills and make themselves more marketable, he said.

The result is a perfect storm of rising college costs and plummeting resources.

“It’s like a double whammy,” Marturano said. “It’s like a one-two punch.

“The economy goes down, the state’s not able to provide as much support, enrollments go up, colleges have to raise tuition and then they’re also faced with additional folks to serve in a really challenging fiscal environment.”

It’s unclear what the next few years could hold, but “if trends continue, the state is going to struggle to be able to even maintain its current level of funding for higher education in the future,” he said.

Uncertain horizon

The future of higher education funding could have an impact on younger students and their families, like Ken Harjes, his wife Terri and their daughter Caitlin, an MCHS sophomore.

Like Bird, Ken Harjes is trying to steer clear of student loans, but he’s not writing them out of the equation.

“I’m trying to avoid it,” he said. “I’m trying to avoid it for our sake and for her sake so that she doesn’t have loans … to pay when she gets out of school.

“But would I consider it? Sure. If we need to do that to get her to the education she’d like, we certainly would consider something like that.”

Bird said he’s been strongly encouraged on several fronts to take out student loans, but he’s convinced debt is only a temporary and insufficient solution to a bigger problem.

He believes the focus should be on controlling college costs “instead of trying to convince parents to go into hock with student loans and either bury themselves or their children long-term for a problem that isn’t getting fixed,” he said.

For now, Bird and his daughter are focusing on their faith as they brace for the future.

“I rely on God,” he said. “He’s my provider. Whatever shape that this takes or whatever happens or whatever obstacles there are, I know that there’ll be a fix, if you will.

“Where those resources come from … I don’t know right now,” he said.

In his experience, it’s no use to worry about tomorrow, he said.

He paused.

“But that doesn’t mean that you don’t try to plan for it, either,” he said.

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