Exit counseling effectiveness questioned

BY CINDY GARCIA | MAY 12, 2015 5:00 AM

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As graduation looms closer and seniors reach for their caps and gowns, some are reminded of the federal-loan debt they must begin repaying soon through mandated loan exit counseling.

However, online exit counseling, usually administered through the U.S. Department of Education website, has recently come under scrutiny, and officials question whether it is truly effective.

“It can be a little overwhelming for students,” said Sara Harrington, the University of Iowa assistant director for financial literacy. “With all the terminology, getting all of that straight, and then taking that back and understanding how it relates to what you’ve been awarded in loans.”

Loan funds are disbursed to incoming freshmen when they complete entrance counseling, while seniors partake in exit counseling — which grants them their transcript.

UI senior Courtney McClellan doesn’t remember having to do entrance counseling. For many, this is precisely the problem.

“It’s reminding students of what they did four years ago, which is the problem, that’s the gap,” Harrington said. “If you’re not paying attention when you’re doing entrance counseling, by the time you get to exit, it might be too late.”

McClellan said the exit counseling was “dense and confusing.”

“It’s difficult to go through because not all of it applies to you,” she said. “I’m glad that I did it, because it made me aware of how much I owe and what the general process is for paying it back, but it would definitely benefit from being more personalized.”

According to the College Board, participating undergraduates borrowed an average of $6,670 in federal direct subsidized and unsubsidized loans in 2013-14.

Figures at the UI are similar, with 47 percent of undergraduates receiving federal student loans at an average of $6,799 per student in 2013-13, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Therefore, the danger of confusion could be devastating.

“Students are overwhelmingly unprepared to understand the amount of debt they’re taking on to complete a college education,” said Kristina Tirloni, the media and public-relations manager for Texas Guaranteed Student Loan.

Texas Guaranteed Student Loan, a nonprofit corporation that aims to prepare families for the financial difficulties brought on by higher education, recently released a report on the experiences of borrowers with online exit counseling.

Its findings were bleak, and it listed recommendations, including implementing mandatory supplemental counseling for high-risk borrowers and making information more personalized.

“Supplemental counseling would give perspective as they move through college and afterward,” Tirloni said.

At the UI, in-person exit counseling was implemented this year, although it is not mandatory. Harrington said financial-literacy specialists use spreadsheets to paint a personalized picture for students.

“I think students really appreciate that,” she said. “It makes it a little easier to understand when you’re seeing it right in front of you like that.”

McClellan agreed one-on-one counseling was “helpful.”

“I was overwhelmed after going through the exit counseling online, so being able to discuss my particular situation with a counselor in the Financial Aid Office made me feel much better and more prepared,” she said.

While the effectiveness of the online exit counseling is questionable after the release of the Texas report, it may be a wake-up call for seniors.

“Doing the counseling made it seem more real that I’m going to have to pay them off soon,” McClellan said. “When you’re in school you don’t think about your loans much, so doing the counseling was a reality check.”

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