Humboldt State University students owe less money in student loan debts than students did in 2009. (Times-Standard file)

Humboldt State University students finishing their college careers this year found themselves over $12,000 in debt, but that’s a far better situation than both state and historical averages, the university announced today.

The average Lumberjack who received a bachelor’s degree after the 2017-18 school year did so with $12,743 in student loan debt.

Meanwhile, the average California State University student at large finished with more than $16,000 in debt, while state and national university averages were more than $22,000 and $28,000, respectively.

Most importantly, an HSU student who graduated in 2009 owed just less than $21,000 in student loans. The drop-off since then is a dash of good news in a time when conversations about student debt often seem futile, said Peggy Metzger, the school’s director of financial aid.

“I hear stories of students living in cars or couch-surfing just to fund their education,” Metzger said today. “They run out of (campus dining) points and can’t eat. Some students send money home to their low-income families.”

The cost for an undergraduate to attend HSU this school year is $24,910, according to the university website. Meanwhile, the minimum costs associated with course tuition have increased since 2009, per CSU statistics.

So why are HSU students finishing with significantly less debt? Metzger suggests they’re better educated about money management.

“Six or seven years ago, we started doing a mandatory financial literacy class during freshman orientation,” she said. “We’re hitting students early with information about basic budgeting, cutting expenses.”

Among the tips offered in these educational sessions is the popular “rent, don’t buy” mantra for textbooks and a reliance on public transportation over car parking.

Compared to other CSU campuses, there are some built-in financial advantages as well, such as the relatively lower cost of living in Arcata versus the Bay Area or greater Los Angeles.

One “double-edged sword,” as Metzger called it, is that there are fewer loans available to amass debt.

After the U.S. Congress failed to renew the federal Perkins Loan in September 2017, students across the country were stripped of future access to the loan, used by around 2.7 million students. The loan offered up to $5,000 at 5 percent interest.

These are realities a new generation has had to adapt to, Metzger opined.

“It brings students into a tighter situation where they have to manage their money better,” she said. “Some students get two or three jobs, finding more creative ways to fill those gaps.”

Higher up, things aren’t pretty. In February, HSU found itself facing $7 million in debt, part of an overall $61 million deficit for the CSU system, prompting the CSU Board of Trustees to consider raising tuition. The board previously voted to raise tuition by $270 in 2017.

“The whole system of federal student aid needs to be fixed,” Metzger said, speaking from her personal opinion. “It’s a much bigger problem than what I do… I’m in the business of figuring out, ‘This student isn’t eating, so what do we do?’”

At a micro level, Metzger’s solution is to get as many students as possible through their college years, with the help of financial aid and resources. With the latest graduating class accruing less debt, things appear to be making progress.

“But even that’s just Band-Aids,” Metzger said. “This whole rigmarole needs help.”

Shomik Mukherjee can be reached at 707-441-0504.

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