“This all seems like monopoly money and then you graduate, and you suddenly realize you are paying $900 a month and can’t afford to get an apartment,” Sen. Mark Warner said on a conference call with campus newspapers in Virginia. 

Warner was referring to the student debt crisis.

“I know, as somebody who was the first person in my family to graduate from college," Warner said. "I’m not sure I could’ve afforded to go to college in today’s environment."

Warner introduced two bills with bipartisan support this week, “The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act” and the “Empowering Students Through Enhanced Financial Counseling Act,” to address the rising costs of higher education and the resulting challenges of student debt.

“It’s like this huge physical burden in your life," Jonathan Arroyo, a sophomore at UR, said of his student loans. "It’s probably the most debt you are going to own in your life, and it’s kind of like you’re on your own, basically.”

The first bill would provide students with a single, user-friendly site where they can access a plethora of data about different colleges. The goal is to help students better understand their investment, to make well-informed college decisions. The second bill would give students and their parents annual interactive counseling so that the family can better understand the financial burden they would be taking on each year.

Warner said these bills were proposed after talking with students who raised concerns about the rising debt and lack of education regarding financial aid.

“Oftentimes the paperwork on student debt is very confusing," Warner said. "You take on all this debt and you don’t really know how that may translate into the amount of monthly payments and the burden it might put you under."

The bills he is introducing will not solve the student debt crisis, but they will help students be more informed, he said.

Although students agreed that the University of Richmond provides fair financial aid packages, and some even chose UR because it offered them the best financial aid, UR is no exception to this national crisis.

Cynthia Deffenbaugh, assistant vice president and director of financial aid at UR, explained that along with meeting 100 percent of students’ demonstrated financial need, UR also provides the resources needed for students to understand their financial aid packages. Students on financial aid all receive an “Understanding your Financial Aid Award” booklet and loan counseling.

“Once they get their financial aid package I think they have the ability to understand it, as long as they read the information we provide for them,” Deffenbaugh said.

But Warner said Virginia schools needed to do more to educate their students about the cost of college and the debt they can incur.

Arroyo shared this sentiment.

“They have the legal right to turn a blind eye to it because it is kind of like your responsibility,” Arroyo said, speaking about UR specifically. “They don’t have to provide you with everything to kind of walk you through it.”

Deffenbaugh explained that students are obligated to read the materials provided to them in their award packets before they sign off to accept their award. She acknowledged, though, that some students likely don't read it, and therefore don't fully understand their financial responsibilities.

“I don’t know whether students always put together over four years that they have this much debt," she said.

Arroyo suggested UR provide financial workshops that prepare their future alumni to manage their student loans and pay them back quickly to avoid crippling debt.

“That kind of could solve the problem of having a surprise on graduation day of trying to figure out things like compounding interest,” he said.

Brittany Gillespie, a junior, explained how understanding her financial aid package was a process and added that she only understands it now because she is in charge of it and has been handling it by herself for the past two years.

“Most people’s families help them, and if my family helped me more, I wouldn’t involve myself with understanding it, probably,” Gillespie said.

Deffenbaugh said she recognized the different levels of family involvement students can have in the financial aid process.

“We see some families where the parents handle everything and the student’s just signing off, we have some families where the student is handling most of it and then we have families that work on it together,” she said.

Another concern expressed by students is that some students do not fully understand that their financial aid can change from year to year.

Need-based aid packages are calculated using factors such as family income, family assets, number of family members benefiting from those assets, and number of family members in college, Deffenbaugh said. If any of those primary factors change from year to year, the student’s eligibility for need-based aid may change as well, she explained.

When Arroyo's sister graduated from college, his financial aid from Richmond decreased considerably.

“I found that out kind of as it happened," he said. "I wasn’t really made aware of that coming in as a freshman."

Warner’s bill also includes counseling specifically for low-income students receiving Pell Grants. This would directly impact UR students because 16 percent of students at UR are receiving Pell Grants.

Canvas Brieva, a junior, has been a Pell Grant recipient since freshman year.

“It definitely has made college more accessible,” Brieva said. “I come from a low-income family and I’m also the first in my family to be going to college, so actually one of the main things I had to consider when getting the acceptance letters and picking where to go was financial aid.”

Financial assistance from the Pell Grant helps low-income students have a wider selection of colleges they can afford.

“It’s definitely been helpful in being able to pick the school based on more of what it has to offer and not saying ‘Oh, I can’t go to that school because it’s too expensive,’” Brieva said.

Deffenbaugh emphasized the importance of open communication with students about financial aid, especially prospective students.

“A lot of times people these days will email or look online but when it comes to making a decision about attending a college," Deffenbaugh said. "I feel like they really want to talk to somebody.”

Along with coming in to talk with the financial aid office, Deffenbaugh added that there are numerous resources available online, including debt calculators for students who want to learn more about their financial aid packages and the debt they have accumulated.

“We appreciate it when the students are involved," she said. "I think that they should be, particularly if they are borrowing loans, they need to understand."

Contact features writer Melanie Lippert at melanie.lippert@richmond.edu.

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