By Emily Younker
Globe Staff Writer
POINT LOOKOUT, Mo. —
April Gregory spends part of each week in a warm, sometimes stuffy laundry on the campus of College of the Ozarks, washing, drying and pressing clothes and linens.
The college sophomore from Harrison, Ark., also maintains an off-campus job and has held summer jobs, but she’s not complaining. Her jobs — plus a new no-debt policy at her school — will ensure that she graduates in a few years without any debt to her name.
“It’s definitely a lot of hard work,” said Gregory, who is majoring in animal science and agriculture business. “You’re just working for your education so you don’t have to pay it off. Just to know that you’re graduating and you can focus on getting a place to live, or a job, and you don’t have to pay (your education) off — you can focus on other things, like a car. We will have more freedom than being tied down to debt.”
During a time when most students are graduating from college with loan debt, College of the Ozarks, a private, four-year school of nearly 1,400 students near Branson, is swimming against the tide. It has long discouraged student debt by not participating in any federal or state loan programs, and its president, Jerry C. Davis, recently announced that the college will no longer honor private bank loans for students.
“Basically what we’re saying is if you want to borrow money, go somewhere else,” he said. “Trust me, there are plenty of colleges that will loan you money. This is not one of them.”
Davis said that in recent years, an average of 90 percent of the college’s students were graduating debt-free thanks in part to the school’s debt policies. But administrators had also been noticing a slight uptick in the number of private loans being taken out to help cover college costs, he said.
“We don’t think that’s a good idea because debt is bad,” he said. “We would not be doing these kids a favor by letting them get into debt. You could argue it’s a disservice. You’re just giving them another brick to swim with when they get out.”
‘Hard Work U’
Under the system that has given the college its “Hard Work U” nickname, students pay for their tuition, which was $17,600 for the 2011-12 academic year, by working on campus each semester for 15 hours per week, plus two 40-hour work weeks. They fill a variety of roles, including upkeep of the scenic campus, staffing the college’s restaurant and lodge, operating the on-campus laundry business, labor of new on-campus construction and tending to the school’s dairy and beef farms.
Any remaining tuition balances not covered through the work education program are filled in with a student’s grants, if eligible, and a scholarship from the college, which boasts on its website that “students should owe absolutely no cash for tuition.”
“It’s better for students to work than it is for students to go in debt,” Davis said.
The college also has a summer program for eligible students to work 12 40-hour work weeks at their campus job to cover the costs of room and board fees, which total $5,900.
Davis said fewer than 100 students are expected to be affected next year by the new policy excluding private loans, which they generally used toward room and board. To assist with the transition, he said the college will increase the number of slots in its summer work program from about 490 to roughly 550.
“At least there’s going to be one college to stand up and say: ‘There’s a better way to do this,’” he said. “And it’s called work.”
‘150 steps ahead’
Amanda Hart, a sophomore from Jefferson City who is majoring in elementary education, works on the “guest experience team,” greeting visitors to the college lodge and also taking responsibility for its cleaning. She said that work, plus a scholarship and her college savings, cover her tuition, while she hopes to be accepted into the summer work program this year to pay for her room and board.
Although she is still a few years away from graduation, she said she expects to obtain her bachelor’s degree without incurring any debt — and that was a major reason she chose College of the Ozarks.
“I wanted to be able to go wherever there was a need (for teachers) and not worry about making enough to pay off student loans,” she said.
Ruben De La Rosa, a senior from Pleasant Hill, expects to graduate next month with a degree in criminal justice with an emphasis in law enforcement. Having worked two campus jobs, as both a server and a student manager in the college’s restaurant, Dobyns Dining Room, he said he plans to take next year off to work and save some additional cash before pursuing his goal of working in the CIA.
De La Rosa didn’t choose College of the Ozarks because of its work program or debt-free policies, but he said he now considers himself lucky to be on the cusp of graduation without any debt weighing him down.
“Truth be told, it’s a very big blessing to be here,” he said. “As I’m getting closer to graduation, it’s such a relief to know I’m only taking care of my own personal stuff (financially). We’re like 150 steps ahead of the average college student.”
No other way to pay
At other schools in the region, loans are still very much a part of the average college student’s life.
“For a lot of students, if they didn’t have access to those student loans, there wouldn’t be any way they could pay to go to school,” said Michael Woodrum, office manager for financial assistance at Pittsburg (Kan.) State University.
Woodrum said Pell and other federal and state grants help cover the cost of tuition for eligible students, and loans are often used by students — especially those who are just above the threshold of grant eligibility — to help fill in the gaps of their college costs.
“For a lot of them, it’s the student loans that really make the difference in them being able to attend Pitt State,” he said.
Woodrum said the university offers a financial planning component in its freshman orientation class, which is required of first-year students. Students who borrow are also required to complete an Education Department-sponsored online counseling session that informs them of interest rates, expected monthly payments, general information on borrowing and more, he said.
Officials report a similar reliance on loans among many students at Missouri Southern State University, where the typical four-year student borrows about $19,600 for a bachelor’s degree.
“We do realize that many students have to utilize student loans to come up with the difference (in college costs) that their family cannot provide or other grants and scholarships don’t cover,” said Becca Diskin, director of the financial aid office.
Diskin said incoming students receive information on loans through their freshman orientation class and Southern Welcome, the summer orientation program. Students who have borrowed also are required to complete counseling before they graduate, working one-on-one with a debt counselor on campus to go over what their payments might look like and what their repayment options are, she said.
The university’s default counselor also works with students who have already graduated but who need advice or assistance with their loans, Diskin said.
Average student debt
A report released last fall by the Project on Student Debt noted that students in the class of 2011 who borrowed in college graduated with an average of $26,600 in loan debt, up from $25,250 the year before.