College debt can be daunting. HU students explain how the high price of their education affects them.

By Thad Arnold | Editor-in-Chief

$1.7 trillion.

That staggering figure is the total amount Americans still owe in student loans, according to data from the Federal Reserve. The cost of college is a problem that is not going away. And President Joe Biden’s recent plan to offer up to $20,000 in debt cancelation to certain borrowers has only reignited the conversation.

HU students are not immune to worries over student debt. According to the 2021 Huntington University Common Data Set, 61.2% of graduating HU students took out student loans. The average borrower at HU graduates with up to $30,000 in student debt. A look at students at HU reveals just how big a role money plays in their college journey—and why they still believe their education is worth the cost.

“It’s kind of been off and on,” said Elias Collier, a theater major. “Especially since first coming to college it was like ‘oh, this is a lot of money.’”

Collier is relying on student loans to pay for his degree, since he cannot afford to pay any of the costs out of pocket. He works on campus for the scene shop, but his on-campus wages are not enough to cover his more important expenses.

Part of what inspired him to go to college was taking a gap year. Collier worked full-time for his first year out of high school.

“But those jobs I didn’t really want to do,” Collier said. “And with this education I was able to find what I want to do and really grow in that.”

Luckily for Collier, he will be able to graduate in three years rather than four, which will save him a significant amount in tuition.

Another student who is trying to reduce their debt by graduating a year early is Gabe Plotnikov, a Bible and theology major.

Like Collier, Plotnikov took a gap year before coming to Huntington, during which he took part in a missions trip to the Middle East. This experience inspired him to study something related to Christian ministry.

“I spent about six months overseas,” Plotnikov explained. “And that meant that most of the money that I had saved up in high school went to my gap year and not to college.”

Plotnikov admits that trying to fit his degree into three years has made his semesters packed. He also made the choice to switch his missions major to a minor, saving him a seven-month internship.

“I’m going to graduate with, I think, one credit more than I need,” he explained.

Plotnikov does not work during the school year. Instead, he works summer jobs in order to save up money to pay for college life. Due to this lack of income, Plotnikov doesn’t have much room for frivolous spending.

“Do I want to go to see a movie with some friends?” Plotnikov shared. “Probably not. Do I want to go on a late night IHOP run? Ah, money, I’m probably good.”

Both Plotnikov and Collier have experienced how college financial concerns spill over into areas outside of class, such as food. Collier says that having a dairy allergy is sometimes challenging. The options in the Dining Commons can be limited.

“Because the way I view it is—I’m getting paid,” Collier added. “And it’s not enough for groceries.”

Plotnikov chose to switch from Meal Plan A to Meal Plan C in order to cut costs on food. While he now has to buy some of his own groceries and cook his own meals, Plotnikov claims that switching to Plan C saves him up to $94 a week on food.

Jonathan Willson, a senior film production major, sees how the cost of college adds pressure to his academic life.

“That’s why I pour as much effort as I do into my work and the DMA department,” Willson explained. “Because I know that I am paying ridiculous amounts of money to be here, and I feel as though I cannot waste a minute of it. “

Willson has also learned how unexpected expenses can add more financial burden, like when his car broke down earlier in the semester.

“It shifts, like, well, I have all this savings … for, you know, after college, that apartment, rent, right?” Willson said. “And now it’s like, well, it’s probably just going to go to a car. “

And, thanks to student loans, the financial stress brought on by college can continue long after graduation. According to Lisa Montany, director of financial aid at HU, students and families have different comfort levels when it comes to taking on debt. While she would not recommend taking on enormous amounts of debt, she feels confident in HU graduates’ ability to pay off their debt after college.

“And so I think [for] those students—it’s just coming up with a plan,” Montany said. “And understanding, ‘Okay, when I graduate what do I need to do?’” 

But these plans can look different for each student.

Collier is set on working after he graduates in the spring to help pay off his debt. He would like to get an internship at Sweetwater Sound in Fort Wayne so that he can eventually become an audio engineer or producer.

Willson plans on trying to work his way into the film industry. Even though filmmaking may not sound like the most practical degree, he believes that he will still be able to make ends meet.

“The first thing that I was absolutely assured by all the professors was the myth of the starving artist is becoming quickly a thing of the past.” Willson added.

Not all students directly enter the workforce, though. Plotnikov plans on pursuing his master’s in clinical counseling after he leaves HU. He is concerned about affording graduate school, but he hopes to obtain a graduate assistantship to help cover the cost.

So what makes higher education worth all this trouble?

AIMING HIGH: Gabe Plotnikov will be the first person in his family to pursue a graduate degree. (Photo by Thad Arnold)

Brian Powell, professor of sociology at Indiana University and co-author of WHO SHOULD PAY? Higher Education, Responsibility and the Public, explained in a Zoom interview that most people still understand that a college degree will improve the quality of their lives on average.

“So there are two parts of the calculation:” Powell added. “How expensive is it—how much you owe—and what is your benefit?”

For Collier, that benefit is networking. Even though he may want to enter a different industry than he originally majored in, Collier feels that the connections he has made during his time at HU will help him in the long run.

But college also has other benefits outside of pay. Plotnikov appreciates having a time where he can intentionally grow in his faith and learn.

“I could have found a job without the degree…” Plotnikov said. “I decided to pursue a degree mainly to learn and better myself in a sense and prepare for certain kinds of ministries.”

Willson claims that his experiences at HU have benefited him “socially, emotionally, and spiritually.”

Collier, Plotnikov, and Willson shared that they all plan on applying or have applied for Biden’s loan forgiveness program.