As college tuition soars, higher education decisions become harder

By Fred Kroner
High school seniors making college decisions have more on their minds than an intended major and picking a school a comfortable distance from home.
As they contemplate a commitment that — in many cases — will encompass four years, they are also faced with choices such as what they want socially as well as how much debt they want to accumulate to get an education.
All of the issues have answers. Few of them are easy.
Mahomet-Seymour senior Shelby Buchanan went through the process throughout the first semester.
She and her family visited different universities. She found things she liked about most of them.
There were also things that were less appealing.
Buchanan established her priorities in advance.
“Mostly I was looking for a college that had a super comfortable feeling, where the people showed interest in my academics and also my life in general,” she said. “And more than anything, a college that was not only growing me academically but spiritually in my relationship with God.
“One thing I knew before looking at colleges is that I wanted a school without the party atmosphere. It’s something that is prevalent in high school and it’s something that I have always wanted to avoid at all cost.”
As she studied her options, one university stood above the others.
“Finding out Olivet Nazarene University was a dry campus was one of the many best things I thought they had to offer that MANY others did not,” Buchanan said.
She visited the campus in Bourbonnais in early December with her mother, Kelly Buchanan-Ford.
Parents don’t always see eye-to-eye with their children, but when it came to their initial reactions the school, they shared similar feelings.
“First and foremost, the moment we drove through the gates at Olivet my immediate thought was ‘wow,’” Buchanan-Ford said. “I can’t really explain it, but everything there was so personal and perfect in my opinion.
“I have always believed that first impressions tell so much and from our first greeting, to the academic counselor knowing Shelby’s youth group leaders, to the one-on-one interaction with the professors and the campus tour where we could see what we wanted and ask as many questions as we wanted, I felt a peace about the place.
“You could feel the faithful vibes everywhere you went on campus. I loved the small feel of the campus. I love that they accommodate all religious backgrounds. Last, but not least, I love the fact that Shelby will be able to fulfill her passion for teaching Spanish along with being involved with others on campus who share her passion in God and what being faithful represents.”
Statistics provide some startling — and distressing — facts about a college education.
According to 2016 data, the average student finished college with $37,172 in student debt loans.
As of 2015, more than two million college graduates have debts in excess of $100,000, and 415,000 of those students owed more than $200,000.
Olivet Nazarene is a private school with yearly tuition totaling about $44,000.
It’s easy to see why the family had concerns, enough that Kelly Buchanan-Ford questioned the advisability of visiting ONU.
“I am not going to lie,” she said. “When I checked into the cost of Olivet, I was very disappointed in knowing there was no way we could make this college happen without a lot of money invested in loans, grants or applying for scholarships.
“Shelby and I went through rounds of conversations in regards to taking out loans that would take her/us a long time to pay back and we finally came to the conclusion that she would have to settle for another college that wasn’t truly the one that she had her heart set on.”
She suggested her daughter strongly consider a secondary choice.
And yet, she also felt the pull to check ONU out thoroughly.
“I knew that this was the perfect fit for her, but I just knew she was going to be let down when it came to costs,” Buchanan-Ford said. “We still wanted to visit though, even though all day long I kept telling her, ‘don’t get your hopes up.’
“Going into our visit, I honestly didn’t really think much would come out of the day in our favor, but still wanted to visit and see. Maybe somewhere down the line things would fall into place to where she could attend.”
Shelby Buchanan wasn’t naive about the possibilities.
She had talked with her friends and listened to her friends.
Many faced the exact same dilemma: Do they insist on what they feel will be best for them collegewise or concede to the inevitable financial barriers and hardships?
“When we would talk back and forth, we all had our ‘top school,’ but for a lot of my friends even if they got in, they probably wouldn’t be able to attend because of the loans they would pay off for so long,” Shelby Buchanan said. “It’s really discouraging that even after all these years of hard work that some kids will have to settle.”
Like her friends, Shelby Buchanan felt that one school spoke to her more than all others.
“Olivet was definitely No. 1 on my list before I even visited,” she said. “After visiting the website, their slogan, “We believe you belong here,” really said something to me.”
There was one concern that didn’t factor into the equation for Buchanan. There was no wondering whether she’d be accepted to ONU.
The question was whether she would accept ONU.
“My family played the biggest part,” Buchanan said. “Every member of my family was always pushing me forward, asking if I needed help, and keeping me on the right path (academically) that ended up paying off big-time.”
Her commitment in the classroom proved to be a pivotal factor.
“It was a tremendous help,” she said.
Shelby Buchanan didn’t try to hide her feelings as the day-long visit to Olivet Nazarene continued.
“I knew that Shelby loved everything about Olivet and what their campus had to offer her shortly after we arrived,” Kelly Buchanan-Ford said. “She kept saying she didn’t
care how we made it work, we just had to.”
Mom remembers smiling the smile that says, ‘I understand,’ at the same time her mind tells her, ‘It’s impossible.’”
She then started to doubt her role in the process leading up to that day.
“I was disappointed that I hadn’t checked more avenues with scholarships to be able to help a little more,” Buchanan-Ford said. “I also went back to my belief that everything happens for a reason, so if it is meant to be, it would be and if not, then there is something better out there for her.
“But even then I knew she would NOT be going here due to the higher cost with it being a private school.”
Before the ladies left the campus, they had one last stop to make.
Kelly Buchanan-Ford felt calm as they returned to the Administration Building.
“I remember our campus tour guide (a Senior at ONU) make a comment that will always stick with me,” she said. “We were getting close to the end of our campus tour and she said our next stop was with one of the family advocates.
“They are the ones that go over scholarships, financial aid, grants and loans that can help, she said. I jokingly said, ‘Can you put in a good word and tell him that we would love a large scholarship so Shelby can go here?’”
The student’s response served to alleviate doubt.
“She said, ‘If this is meant to be for Shelby, God will make it happen,’” Kelly Buchanan-Ford related.
They were about to learn it was, in fact, meant to be.
“When we sat down with the family advocate, honestly my feeling was that of pure shock,” Kelly Buchanan-Ford said. “With them being a private school, they can award their own scholarships and award money.
“I feel like I asked the same questions over about three different times just to make sure what I was hearing was correct and no mistakes were made when it came to Shelby’s information. I received the same answer every time I asked.”
When the number-crunching was completed, the family learned their commitment will be about $8,000 annually. Of that, about $5,000 will be in the form of student loans that will require a first payment six months after graduation.
Shelby Buchanan wasn’t sure who was the most disbelieving person in the room as they heard the proposal.
“I said to the financial advisor after he told me what he was offering, ‘Is this what I will pay for books?’” she related, “and he responded, ‘No, Shelby, that is what you will be paying a year. Total.”
In advance of the visit, Mom anticipated the day would end with tears. She was only wrong about the reason.
“It was a truly emotional moment,” Shelby Buchanan said. “I told him, ‘Excuse me if I cry.’
“I knew then that God provided for me and had a plan all along despite the financial troubles. He’s got my back.
“Truly this showed me not to doubt yourself, and above all else, don’t doubt God. He works in huge ways. I believe that if you put everything in God’s hands, eventually you’ll see His hands in everything you do.”
Upon hearing the news — and having it confirmed — Kelly Buchanan-Ford admitted she was close to being speechless.
“I thought we would leave there disappointed,” she said. “Instead, we left there almost floating with the greatness of the day and the news that Shelby will be able to go to her dream school.
“I do believe that we were blessed more than I ever could have imagined.”
Shelby Buchanan plans to major in Spanish education and minor in mission work.
She is ready for all of the next chapters in her life to begin.
“There’s so much hurt, poverty, starvation and need in this world,” she said, “I truly can’t wait to see how God can use me with both of these passions I have.
“I would love to be working in full-time mission work in a Spanish-speaking country or any place that needs help.”
For both mother and daughter, the college selection process was an education in itself.
“Trust your instincts, follow your passions, pray hard and pray big,” Shelby Buchanan said. “Don’t give up on yourself because when you don’t give up, you can accomplish anything you put your mind to.”
Kelly Buchanan-Ford will say ‘Amen’ to that sentiment.
“Really weigh out the pros and cons of a school and what it has to offer your child,” she said. “Sometimes if it seems too good to be true, don’t take that as an excuse to give up and look for less.
“Not everyone has the funds or full-ride scholarships to fulfill their child’s college prospect, but there are so many avenues out there if you just look.  Make sure to really talk to the advisors and family advocates of the school your child is wanting to attend to make sure you have done everything possible to make sure your student gets the most they can applied to their schooling.”
She now realizes, too, that there is a countdown until August when her daughter starts an independent life away from home.
“Enjoy the years you have with your kids under your house,” she said, “because far too soon they become adults and are moving into a dorm, going to college, chasing their dreams and making new friends and your ‘old normal’ becomes a ‘new normal’ of watching them take words you have preached so many years and applying the knowledge to their own adulthood.”
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