NORTHRIDGE – As the new debt management counselor at California State University, Northridge, Gregorio Alcantar sees students who aren’t as savvy as they could be when it comes to paying for college. He talks to freshmen who are dead set against getting a student loan at 4.7 percent interest, but see nothing wrong with maxing out their 12-percent interest credit cards. Some don’t consider a loan as financial aid because there are interest payments involved. Still others aren’t aware that, if they drop out before getting a degree, they still have to repay the loan. AD Quality Auto 360p 720p 1080p Top articles1/5READ MOREWalnut’s Malik Khouzam voted Southern California Boys Athlete of the Week “There isn’t an awareness of how financial aid works, and the programs that are available,” Alcantar said. “Sixty percent of the student body gets financial aid, so we know we’re a popular program, but we’d like to be more of a resource. “What you don’t know can hurt you.” Nationwide, more college students are taking on debt to finance their education, a trend that has many higher education experts alarmed. High debt loads – the national average is just under $20,000 for a bachelor’s degree – can limit the soon-to-be graduates’ choice of careers, not to mention forcing them to postpone milestones such as buying a house, building their retirement plan or saving for their children’s college education. Even worse, half of all college freshmen borrow money for their education, and 20 percent of borrowers drop out, leaving them without access to the kind of higher-paying job that would enable them to pay off that debt, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. But in California, students enjoy the cheapest community college tuition in the country and relatively low tuition in the California State University and University of California systems. Across the 23-campus CSU system, the average cumulative debt for CSU students is $13,368 for a bachelor’s degree, officials said. Default rates for CSU students in 2002 were 3.1 percent, compared with 5 percent for all of California, and 5.2 percent nationally. CSU students also receive more grants than loans, the reverse of the national trend. Thanks to programs such as the Cal Grant and the State University Grant, CSU students’ financial aid packages average 53 percent grants, and 46 percent loans compared with the 47/52 grant-to-loan ratio nationally, said Allison Jones, CSU assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs. But consumer debt remains a concern, Jones and Alcantar said. Too many students have trouble scaling back a nonstudent lifestyle to meet the additional financial demands of college. “When you get into other kinds of consumer debt, we have no control over that, or any knowledge,” Jones said. “It doesn’t show up on financial statements when a student applies for financial aid, and we don’t know if a student has two or three credit cards that he’s maxed out on.” For that reason, CSUs across the system are working to provide financial aid counseling and budgeting tips to students and encouraging students to map careers to majors, Jones said. CSU’s online CSUMentor system, for example, has calculators that let students determine exactly what their monthly repayment amounts will be once they graduate. Alcantar hopes to help CSUN students formulate a smart financial aid plan that allows them to graduate on time, with the smallest loans possible, and into careers that will enable them to repay loans in a timely manner. He also will work with alumni, to help them stay on track with their repayment plans. But several CSUN students said they still prefer to pay their way through college as they go, and not rely on loans, even if it may take them longer to graduate. They live at home with their families, transfer from community colleges, take on part-time or full-time jobs, and find other ways to cut costs, while acknowledging that some discretionary items – like cell phones – are, to them, necessities. Loans will eventually be inevitable for CSUN organic chemistry major Allan Gungormez, 18, of Northridge, who plans to go to medical school. But in the meantime, he deliberately chose CSUN for its affordable tuition, turning down other schools with prestigious names but laughable financial aid packages. He also clips coupons and uses a debit card, instead of a credit card, to stay on track. “I’ll see people at (campus fast-food restaurants) who don’t have enough cash, and they say, ‘Oh, it’s kind of an emergency – I’ll just swipe it,”‘ and put it on the plastic, Gungormez said. Lisa M. Sodders, (818) 713-3663 [email protected] 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!