Recent Wilson College graduate Brant Swartz estimates that his entire student debt will be about $20,000 but he can deduct $5,000 right off the bat, thanks to Wilson’s unique student loan buyback plan—a program that rewards students who excel academically, complete their bachelor’s degree in four years or less, attend financial literacy sessions and are involved in college life.
Swartz and fellow Wilson graduate Cassandra Watkins, who also qualified for $5,000 in debt relief after completing a summer internship, are the first two students to reap the rewards of Wilson’s student loan buyback plan—the first of its kind in higher education. The buyback program pays up to $10,000—depending on a student’s grade-point average toward their federal Stafford loans.
The $5,000 will put Swartz way ahead of the typical Pennsylvania college graduate, who in 2015 (the most recent year for which data is available) had an average student debt load of nearly $35,000, according to the Institute for College Access and Success
“It’s always good to help reduce loans any way you can,” said Swartz, of Pottsville, Pa. He said Wilson’s loan buyback, especially popular with his parents, takes a certain measure of hard work and discipline, but advises prospective and current Wilson students: “I think anybody can accomplish it, as long as they set their mind to it.”
Both Swartz and Watkins worked hard, earning their bachelor’s degrees in less than the typical four or more years. Although neither knew about Wilson’s loan buyback plan before enrolling in the southcentral Pennsylvania liberal arts college, they said it provided an incentive once they knew they were in the running for funding.
““I’m getting married after college so it will help with my first loan payments,” said Watkins, of Akron, Ohio. “I think it’s a great program and a great thing for the college to be doing for the students. It’s a great benefit.”
Inspired by cash-back offers used by auto manufacturers to sell cars, Wilson President Barbara K. Mistick came up with the idea for the student loan buyback plan. She wanted to not only make a Wilson education more affordable—beyond Wilson’s track record of holding tuition steady or reducing it for the past seven consecutive years—but also to provide students with an incentive to get more involved in and informed about their financial future. The requirement that students attend financial literacy sessions is a crucial component of the buyback program for her.
“We want students to be committed to their own success,” Mistick said. “I am confident we are on a unique path here. Students learn how to LEARN when they are at Wilson, but they also learn how to LIVE—and part of that learning how to live is learning how to manage, financially.”
Mistick also wants to convey to students the importance of completing their undergraduate degree in four years or less. “You can keep your debt down so much more if you’re not taking an extra year or two to finish,” she said.
Watkins and Swartz entered Wilson in fall 2014 and both accelerated their graduations by, in Swartz’ case, taking classes every summer, as well as taking a college class in high school. Watkins also earned college credit in high school, took summer and January-Term classes and took an 18-credit load (15 is more typical) each semester for an entire year.
Watkins graduates with a bachelor’s degree in veterinary medical technology and plans to work as a technician in a veterinarian’s office. She was president of the VMT Club and a member of the Hunt Seat Club. Swartz, who earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental sustainability, is attending Vermont Law School through a 3+1 program that allows students to earn a bachelor’s degree from Wilson and a master’s degree from VLS in just four years. He plans to pursue a master’s degree in environmental law and policy at VLS. At Wilson, he was an officer in the student government organization.
Both students said they have also benefited from other financial aid offered by Wilson, including scholarships.
The loan buyback program was approved by the Wilson College Board of Trustees in January as part of a bold series of measures aimed at rejuvenating the college by significantly increasing enrollment, strengthening programs and facilities, addressing issues of educational cost and value, and ensuring financial sustainability in the future.
Wilson officials expect the plan to cost up to $100,000 a year, depending on variables. The college is funding the plan through additional revenue generated by increased enrollments and retention of students participating in the program.
Specifics of the loan buyback program include:
- Restricted to Stafford student loans related to enrollment at Wilson College. The Stafford loan is the primary federal loan for college students.
- Requires a pledge by the student to borrow only what is necessary to meet educational expenses.
- Participation in financial literacy programs offered to all students in their freshman and senior years.
- Restricted to first-time college students who earn a diploma in four years or less of continuous, full-time enrollment at Wilson.
- Buyback amounts vary depending on a student’s final grade-point average (GPA), out of a possible 4.0.
- $5,000 for those with a GPA of 3.5 to 3.69
- $7,500 for those with a GPA of 3.7 to 3.89
- $10,000 for those with a GPA of 3.9 or higher
- Students are required to demonstrate active involvement and participation in activities and community services that would benefit the Wilson College community, such as: participating in student government, working with community organizations, tutoring other students, and participating in campus sustainability initiatives.
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