Keeping student debt in check

 In News, Partners Magazine

3 minute read

Clark students borrow less than most community college students, thanks largely to scholarships
Maddie Hennerty ’22 is one of many students who graduated from Clark debt-free

Maddie Hennerty ’22 is one of many students who graduated from Clark debt-free. She worked at a pizza restaurant while in high school, inset, to save for college. Scholarships from Clark College Foundation helped stretch her savings. Inset photo by Maddie Hennerty. Graduation photo by Jenny Shadley

A reasonable price tag is what led Maddie Hennerty ’22 to Clark College. Hennerty was 16 when she looked up the cost of attending state universities and felt discouraged. Her parents hadn’t attended college but encouraged her to go. Hennerty, who lives in Battleground, Wash., eventually learned about Clark College. The cost seemed within reach.

“I had two years to save,” she said.

Hennerty worked 25 hours a week, first at a pizza place and then at the mall, to save for college. By the time she finished high school, she had saved enough to pay for her first year at Clark. Clark College Foundation awarded her scholarships to cover her entire second year.

Hennerty also received the President’s Scholarship, which covers full tuition at Washington State University, where she plans to study sociology. Hennerty is thrilled to earn her bachelor’s degree with no debt.

“I’m feeling more secure in whatever I decide to pursue,” Hennerty said, “because I won’t be held back by the sixty grand I already have in my name.”

Avoiding debt

Glendi Gaddis, Clark’s interim associate dean of financial aid, said Hennerty is not alone in avoiding debt at Clark.

“Many of our students are able to get their associate degree without borrowing anything,” she said.

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s college scoreboard data, 7% of Clark students borrowed money during the 2020-21 school year—the most recent year for which data is available. Among Clark students who graduated in 2021, the median total amount of student debt accrued was $11,206—less than the national average community college debt of $13,144.

The generosity of alumni and donors is a big reason for Clark students’ lower debt. During the 2021-2022 academic year, the foundation awarded more than $1 million in scholarships to 550 students. The average scholarship was about $2,400.

The foundation also awards transfer scholarships for Clark graduates transferring to other institutions, to help them pay for the next phase of their education.

Scholarships are critical to students’ ability to pay for college, Gaddis said.

“When students are able to access grants and scholarship support, it helps them not have to borrow money,” she said.

National issue

More than 43.4 million Americans have student loan debt totaling $1.76 trillion. The average student loan debt in Washington state is $35,117. Most of that debt is accrued at four-year institutions. Nationally, 55% of bachelor’s degree recipients graduating from four-year colleges in 2020 had student loan debt with $28,400 in average debt at graduation.

Community colleges remain an affordable alternative. Marla Skelley, an associate director for compliance at the Washington Student Achievement Council, said the 2020-2021 average annual loan for Washington students of community and technical colleges was $5,862—a figure that includes resident and non-resident students, who tend to pay higher tuition costs.

September 22, 2022 is when Give More 24! unites the region for 24 hours of generosity.Across the nation, many students had their student loan payments paused during the pandemic. That suspension is scheduled to end in August 2022 and many will have to resume payment.

As part of Clark’s transition to the guided pathways model of education, students get more information up front about college costs. Gaddis said the model helps students stay on track to achieve their education goals. This is important because students who borrow money and don’t complete a degree face a higher probability of being unable to repay their loans.

“We definitely don’t want students borrowing more than they need,” Gaddis said. “And if they do borrow, we want them to be informed.”

Written by Lily Raff McCaulou, whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Guardian and Rolling Stone. Visit her online at

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