Matt Driscoll

A PLU education, the ability to chase a noble career and help paying off loans? Yes, please

Next year, qualifying students at Pacific Lutheran University can get help from the school in repaying their student loans if they graduate in fewer than six years and secure full-time employment making less than $40,000 per year.
Next year, qualifying students at Pacific Lutheran University can get help from the school in repaying their student loans if they graduate in fewer than six years and secure full-time employment making less than $40,000 per year.

Christine Fontana says she never envisioned her daughter attending Pacific Lutheran University.

Not for lack of ability. Baylee Fontana, a freshman this year, worked hard during her time at White River High School in Buckley and got good grades.

Rather, it was the financial burden — and the specter of student-loan debt — that gave Christine pause.

Her husband works for an area produce company. She works part-time as a server at Applebee’s. All told, paying for four years at a private university seemed like a daunting, if not impossible, prospect. Saddling her daughter with debt to make it happen seemed unwise.

A new program to be offered by PLU, which helps qualifying graduates pay back their student loans, will help make a PLU education happen for Baylee. She’d likely be at a community college this year without it, her mom says.

“It’s like a blessing,” Christine says.

For local colleges and universities, the program just might serve as an example of the creative ways institutions can help alleviate the increasing financial barriers that prevent some kids from going off to college in the first place. At PLU, it also will give graduates greater freedom to choose professions with their hearts, not just their bank accounts, increasing their ability to go into lower-paying professions that serve the community and the greater good.

“This really, I think, could allow (graduates) to pick a job based on passion, and those ideas of service and care within their own lives,” says Melody Ferguson, PLU’s admissions director.

Here’s how it works: Incoming freshmen who take out federal or alternative student loans, or parents who take out PLUS loans, would be eligible for quarterly reimbursement payments to help offset the cost of those loans, as long as they’re not in the nursing program and graduated in six years or less. The assistance will be available to graduates who have a full-time job earning less than $40,000 a year. The program is not available to students in the nursing program, who are virtually guaranteed placement in a job paying more than $40,000 annually when they graduate.

A PLU grad earning $20,000 a year or less working full time would be entitled to full student-loan payment reimbursement, while graduates earning between $20,001 and $40,000 would be entitled to reimbursements on a sliding scale.

Starting in the 2018-19 academic year, the program will be available to nearly all incoming freshman who take out loans to pay for school. There is no cost to enroll.

Branded as the PLU Pledge, it will be administered through a partnership with the for-profit Loan Repayment Assistance Program.

While other schools in the area have offered similar student-loan repayment assistance on a limited basis to select groups of students, school officials at PLU believe the university will be the first in the state to offer it so broadly.

Now, for some perspective.

PLU Pledge won’t completely offset the high cost attending the school,or students’ increasing reliance on student loans to pay for it. Currently, 69 percent of PLU students take out student loans, and the average PLU grad leaves school with just over $31,000 in debt.

According Ferguson, all of this aligns with the school’s mission of service, leadership and care.

“This will hopefully allow (graduates) to pursue what they want to be, without that pressure of making sure they can graduate and get a really high paying job to pay off whatever student loans they have,” she says.

So what does PLU get out of it?

University officials say the program will help increase enrollment and aid in student retention, according to Mike Frechette, the school’s interim dean of enrollment management.

They’re hoping the investment on the PLU’s part — a price of just under $1,000 a year for all incoming freshman who take out a loan — will hopefully pay for itself, and then some.

Given the ongoing budget issues PLU faces, that’s important.

But allowing students more flexibility to be what they want to be upon graduation is even more important. It doesn’t just help college graduates, it benefits society.

Helping students like Baylee Fontana attend a four-year university that would have otherwise been out of reach for her family is a big deal, too.

“I think it’s going to be a blessing to a lot of families who, like us, really want to see their kids go out and go to universities, but financially just aren’t quite there,” Christine Fontana says. “This just kind of gave us piece of mind that things are going to be OK.”