Unburdened By Debt

The national student loan debt has hit a staggering $1.2 trillion, yet the default rate at Wilmington University is low and the satisfaction level is high. Why is that?


Nema-BassNema Bass was about to give up on college. She couldn’t afford the tuition, and dealing with financial aid personnel at other colleges was a nightmare.

“Prior to coming to Wilmington University,” she says, “I attended another institution where I received the worst financial aid help. I left that situation with more questions and concerns than I went in with, and a bad impression of financial aid as a whole.”

After her first meeting at WilmU, she says, “those negative thoughts were replaced with pleasant feelings. The well-informed staff members were knowledgeable, understanding and available to me. They treated me as an individual.”

Without financial aid, Bass would not have earned her degree. And she isn’t alone. A recent Experian study revealed that student loans have increased by 84 percent since the recession (from 2008 to 2014). It’s the only type of consumer debt that’s not decreasing. Nationwide, about $1.2 trillion has accumulated in student loan debt alone, and in Delaware, graduates owe an average of $26,802 — the 15th highest average in the nation.

WilmU’s extensive financial aid offerings are more important than ever. As the Obama administration urges Congress to advance new re-forms that promote affordable tuition, America is being outpaced internationally.

In 1990, the United States ranked first in the world in four-year degree attainment among 25–34-year-olds. Today, it ranks 12th.

The push is on. President Obama wants America to boast the world’s highest proportion of college graduates by 2020. The upside will be a more educated workforce. But more students could mean more student debt. That’s a challenge in a society where college degrees are a necessity, not a luxury, and where the majority of its 30 fastest growing occupations require postsecondary education.

Graduates like Bass can attest to the importance of financial aid, and the compassionate way in which it’s dispersed at WilmU. That feeling of satisfaction is what the university’s financial aid professionals strive for — and what they achieve.

But there’s a deeper reason why WilmU has been so successful in rewarding financial aid to those who need it.

The Offerings

Myriad scholarship opportunities, federal student aid options, state and institutional grants, alternative loans and monthly payment plans make up WilmU’s effort to aid students of all economic levels. The university doesn’t assess any fees other than a registration fee and a course-specific fee where applicable. Many of WilmU’s certificate programs are eligible for financial aid as well.

“We also award credit for prior training and learning experiences, co-operative education, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) certification to reduce the overall cost of tuition,” says Senior Vice President Dr. Erin DiMarco. “In addition, dual-enrollment partnerships with select high schools were created in an effort to promote a seamless transition from high school to college, and our Early College High School Scholarship enables a qualified high school junior or senior to take a college course free of charge.”

At WilmU’s New Castle location is a $tand By Me Financial Empowerment program that’s designed to provide students with personal finance coaching. Its mission is to afford Delawareans a personal financial coach and a toolkit to navigate the challenges leading to personal financial security.

“We welcomed one of $tand By Me’s coaches, Allison Laurant, onto our campus and into our classrooms,” says Nicole McDaniel-Smith, WilmU’s financial director.  “The program offers free, confidential, group and one-on-one financial coaching in the areas of managing credit, raising credit scores, building monthly budgets, reducing monthly bills, saving for retirement, buying homes, and more.  It’s an excellent program and opportunity for all of our students, not just financial aid recipients, to get assistance with managing their personal finances.”

Bass took advantage of $tand By Me. “Not only did Allison help me understand and properly plan for life after graduation,” she says, “but she also helped me repair the imperfections on my credit reports. I gained a better understanding of credit and how it works.”

The Process

The financial aid process begins when students complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, says McDaniel-Smith. “Once the financial aid office receives the student’s FAFSA, we then reach out to complete the process.”

WilmU’s student population has grown rapidly over the years, hitting 20,000 last year, and more than 20,500 now. “But we remain committed to offering a high level of customer service to our students,” says McDaniel-Smith. “We’re here for them, and not the other way around. So you’ll find that even during our busiest processing periods, students are still able to call and speak with a live financial aid representative. This is unlike other financial aid offices where, during their busiest processing periods, students may only get a recording.”

Students are encouraged to visit the financial aid office for help with completing the FAFSA. They’re also offered direct loan entrance counseling and assistance with their master promissory notes, which are legal documents that students sign, promising to repay their loans and any accrued interest and fees to the U.S. Department of Education. Students can speak with financial aid associates or advisors about their individual accounts, and no appointments are necessary. WilmU’s financial aid team tends to go above and beyond the call of duty, which explains the university’s low default rate.

America’s default rate is a pressing issue. According to Forbes, the Department of Education projects that 25.3 percent of undergraduate Stafford loans issued next year will default during the borrower’s repayment term. That’s an increase of 2.5 percent from last year. And nearly every other student loan category also indicates an increase in projected default rates.

WilmU is working to meet this challenge, and its default rate is below the national average. “Students in general tend to go into delinquency or default because they don’t know there are programs or options available to prevent that from happening,” says McDaniel-Smith. “So instead of hiding from or ignoring their loan servicers, we encourage them to reach out to them. I believe that putting in that extra effort — to get in front of students to talk to them about the debt they’ve incurred instead of simply directing them to complete the federally mandated electronic process — has helped in keeping our default rate relatively low, compared to other open access, private or public institutions.”

The Key

“We work every day to accommodate the challenges faced by students who need financing options,” says Executive Vice President Dr. LaVerne Harmon. “Our goal is to provide a variety of student services that are designed to help students succeed intellectually and financially. We have raised our tuition by only 2.5 percent each academic year for the past seven years, which is below the national average.”

But there’s an even deeper reason. WilmU is an institution led by professionals who understand their students. Some are of non-traditional age returning to college after long absences. Many attend part-time while working full-time and raising families. Myriad first generation students take part-time course loads to reduce student loan debts. And numerous students transfer in from community colleges or other institutions where they may not have experienced full academic success.

“Every student matters,” says Dr. Harmon. “We take each of their journeys to heart. Affordable, quality education should be available to all who seek it, and we take that core value very seriously.” WU

WilmU’s Federal Offerings


$ The Pell grant, unlike a loan, doesn’t have to be repaid, and is generally awarded to undergraduate students who have not earned a bachelor’s or professional degree. Approximately 35% of WilmU students are eligible for Pell.

$ Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, or the FSEOG, is available for undergraduates with exceptional financial need.

$ The Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education grant, known as TEACH, is different from other federal student grants because it requires students to take certain kinds of classes in order to get it, and then do certain kinds of jobs to keep it from turning into a loan, according to the studentaid.gov website.

$ Federal Work Study grants provide part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need, which allows them to earn money for education expenses.

$ Stafford loans tend to be among the most popular in the higher education realm. The U.S. Department of Education pays the interest on these loans while students are enrolled in college on at least a half-time basis and during other periods of authorized deferment. The interest on an unsubsidized federal Stafford loan begins accruing from the date the loan is disbursed and remains the responsibility of the borrower.

$ PLUS loans can be used to help pay education expenses.

For more information, contact Financial Director Nicole McDaniel-Smith at nicole.l.mcdaniel-smith@wilmu.edu.