SUNY Ulster to be Smart Track pilot school

SUNY Ulster students make their way to classes last Monday morning. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

College students going to SUNY Ulster will soon get some help with their indebtedness. State University of New York Chancellor Nancy L. Zimpher and the SUNY Board of Trustees launched what they hope will become a national model for fighting student loan debt — the Smart Track Campaign.

“Student debt has surpassed credit card debt in America, and more and more students are defaulting on their loans each year,” said SUNY Board Chairman H. Carl McCall in a press release. “Smart Track will help SUNY to better educate students and parents about the costs of college, help them plan financially for the future, and increase their chances to stay in school and earn a degree.”

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Smart Track’s key hook is the amount of information it gives to students. Essentially, the campaign is one that seeks to keep undergrads aware of their likely graduation rate and the default rates of others who’ve taken the same loan as they’re considering. Students who have a high risk of default will be monitored, counseled and helped through the repayment process.

“On behalf of our students and their families, we simply must do a better job to ensure that college costs are transparent, financial aid opportunities are outlined clearly and comprehensively, and students are only borrowing what they need and what they can afford,” said Chancellor Zimpher. “Smart Track puts SUNY on pace to lead the nation in reducing student debt and creating a more financially sound future for our students and alumni.”

The program also beefs up the centralized SUNY Student Loan Service Center. Right now, the center focuses on Perkins Loans, but it will now take on additional Smart Track-related responsibilities.

Students and prospective students will also find tools online to help them figure out what an education will actually cost. The “Net Price Calculator” will allow learners to see how much room and board, tuition and fees would set them back.

Loan debt is a key concern for colleges, since it’s been on the rise. Student loan default rates rose again in 2009 to 8.8 percent overall, and Americans now hold more than $1 trillion in outstanding college loan debt. Both for-profit colleges and public colleges leave students laden with debt.

Of the roughly 468,000 who attend SUNY schools statewide, about 267,000 students have taken out federal student loans. Last year, more than 75,000 of SUNY’s students started repaying their loans, but 6,000 people fell into default. SUNY’s grads track the national average for indebtedness closely — 60 percent graduate with at least some student loan debt.

Stone Ridge-based SUNY Ulster is one of only six colleges within the SUNY system to help pilot the program in the 2012-2013 school year. They’re also pretty average in terms of who is borrowing and default rates.

“We’re one of the pilot schools, and we volunteered for that,” explained Ron Marquette, the college’s spokesman. “It has nothing to do with our own default status or rating. We’re right there in the middle of the whole thing. It has nothing to do with our rating compared to any other school.”

SUNY Ulster wanted to be in the pilot program because they wanted to give their students tools. Also as a small community college they had something to offer in terms of creating diversity in the six choices. But it’s something that’s risen to the level of a national problem.

“President Obama has talked about it. Vice President Biden has talked about it,” he said. “We can help students maybe be a little bit smarter, if you will, about how to borrow money.”

Nationwide the average debt for 2011 was $23,300, but in some rare instances student borrowers have exceeded $100,000 in the hole.

Marquette noted that students might feel a strong pull to take out the most money they can.

“You have this amount of money you can borrow. Do you take it all now? Maybe you don’t take the max. Maybe you take the minimum. And most students will probably take the max,” he said. “So it’s a matter of communicating with them that maybe you don’t need the max right now.”

For students, the money they borrow has serious consequences down the line.

“When you’re 19 and you’re borrowing money, you don’t really think, ‘I’ll have to worry about paying it,’” he said. “When you’re 35 years old — and you want to go buy a house — and suddenly this comes up on the computer, you find out, ‘oh they’re stopping me from buying this house because I have a student loan.’”

Besides SUNY Ulster the other colleges participating in Smart Track are Niagara County Community College, Schenectady County Community College, UAlbany, SUNY Fredonia and Purchase College. After this year, Smart Track moves to all 64 SUNY campuses in Fall 2013.

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