What’s the real cost of college, loan debt?

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Andrienne Bolton, a Lewiston High School senior, says college costs are important to her when deciding where to go. Lewiston High School is offering a college award analysis workshop for students and parents April 11 and 24.

LEWISTON — Hussein Adan, 18, a senior at Lewiston High School, has been accepted to a New Hampshire college that offered help on tuition.

“But I would have to come up with $12,000 for room and board,” he said. “That’s a lot.”

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He’s still undecided, but he’s thinking about rejecting that offer because it’s too expensive. The University of Southern Maine “may be the best for me,” he said.

Adrienne Bolton, 17, a senior, plans to study culinary arts in college after first working at a Bar Harbor hotel. She’s now enrolled in the Lewiston Regional Technical Center’s culinary program.

How much debt she’d take on will enter into her decision of where she’ll go to college, she said.

Both Adan and Bolton have heard Lewiston High School Aspirations Coordinator Doug Dumont talk about student loan debt and how college decisions made now can financially impact someone for decades.

On April 11 and April 24, Dumont is hosting a Financial Aid Award Analysis Workshop for students and parents from 6 to 8 p.m. This kind of workshop isn’t offered at all high schools.

Counselor Christina Cifelli of Edward Little High School said her school doesn’t offer college award letter workshops, but she does help students one-on-one, or speaks to classes when asked.

Spring is the time of year when high school seniors are getting award letters from colleges and universities that show how much financial aid a college will provide, and then how much money students and parents would have pay or borrow.

The award letters can be confusing and need to be read carefully, she said.

“Some colleges tuck in ‘Parent Plus Loans’ in the award, which artificially inflates the award,” Dumont said. A student could look at the letter assuming he or she has enough money, not fully understanding some of the numbers are loans, she said.

Lewiston High School’s culture has shifted in the past 20 years from “Are you going to college?” to “Where are you going to college?”

Dumont is throwing in more questions to help students’ futures: What kind of career do you want? How much debt will you be able to afford?

Dumont showed a computer spreadsheet of how much one college-bound senior would pay at one out-of-state college. The award letter showed the annual cost to the student and family at $12,000 per semester — and that wasn’t counting loans.

“I say to kids and parents, ‘Do you have $25,000?'” Dumont said. If they go to that college, “you’re going to get a bill for $12,000 a semester. How are you going to pay it?”

Last year, Maine was seventh highest in the nation for student debt; the average student debt was $31,000. This year, Maine ranks 14th with the average debt a bit more than $29,000.

“That’s high,” Dumont said. “With $31,000 in debt, the average monthly payment is about $351. That’s a lot of money.”

Students should always apply for the college of their dreams because they could get enough financial aid to make it affordable.

But if they don’t get the financial aid they need, if students and parents don’t have thousands saved and need to rely on student loans, Dumont suggests they consider alternatives, such as attending the first two years of college at a community college.

Community college tuition for a Maine student is about $3,500 a year. That does not include room and board. He encourages students to live at home their first two years, attend a community college, then transfer to a four-year college.

Students sometimes react with “I want to go to a real college,” Dumont said. “I tell them the community college is a real college. ‘You go to a community college for two years, then transfer anywhere you want.’ We talk about living with your parents those first two years when they’re 18 and 19.”

That’s better, he said, than graduating from college with too much debt and moving back with parents at age 23, “because you can’t afford a rent, a car. You can’t afford groceries, utilities, cellphones and internet and fun things to do. So go on the cheap now.”

Dumont said he works to show the real costs to help students understand what they’re getting into, and will “make good financial decisions today that will help them when they’re 41 years old.”

Student loan debt can be tough to get away from, he said.

“You used to be able to file bankruptcy and they’d go away,” Dumont said. “Now you can’t.”

Hussein Adan, left, a senior, works with Lewiston High School Aspirations Coordinator Doug Dumont in the school’s aspirations lab.

What: Financial Aid Award Analysis Workshop

For whom: Lewiston High School seniors and parents

When: April 11 and April 24, 6 to 8 p.m., Lewiston High School library

Why: Acceptance letters from colleges and universities come with award letters which show how much students and families would have to pay and borrow. Aspirations Coordinator Doug Dumont will break down the numbers to show the real costs and student loan debt.

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