SUNY students get on the Smart Track

Chancellor Zimpher announces campaign to help students manage finances

In an attempt to make the complex process of navigating college financing more manageable, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher plans to launch a new SUNY-wide financial aid campaign she hopes will combat student debt.

Zimpher’s “SUNY Smart Track Campaign,” announced on Sept. 12, aims to educate students about their loans and keep them on track to repay them.

Dennis Chavez, director of financial aid and student records at Binghamton University, explained that the campaign will allow for greater transparency, offering students school-specific information regarding graduation rates, average student debt, default rates and educational cost.

According to a press release from SUNY, the program will implement a system that will identify students taking out unrealistic loans that they may be unable to pay back.

Once an at-risk student is identified, he or she will receive assistance from the SUNY Loan Service Center, a program that gives loan advice to students throughout their time at college.

The Service Center will be expanded to all SUNY campuses under the campaign, according to the press release.

Dan Tramuta, president of the New York State Financial Aid Administrators Association, said unrealistic loans are a big threat to college students, particularly those at Binghamton University.

“At a school like Binghamton, probably six out of 10 students are borrowing Federal Stafford Loans,” Tramuta said. “We have 34 million Americans who start college and never finish. When we see a student early on who is potentially at risk we will focus our attention on them.”

Chavez added that while the campaign itself will not directly reduce student loans, it would hopefully allow students to take better advantage of their financial aid opportunities.

“At Binghamton, anytime a student comes in asking for additional money, it is typically going to be in the form of additional loans,” Chavez said. “It is then that we have conversations about budgeting, lifestyle choices and trade-offs with expenses. We also discuss what taking on additional loans can mean and ensuring that students make informed decisions. Additionally, we send out information to seniors about how to best manage their debt.”

Eventually all SUNY schools will have uniform financial aid award letters under the Smart Track Campaign. Rather than focusing solely on the amount of money awarded, the new SUNY financial aid letters will include statistics about the school the student was accepted to, including average student debt and graduation rates.

The pilot version of the program is currently being tested at six SUNY schools: SUNY Albany, SUNY Fredonia, Niagara County Community College, Purchase College, Schenectady County Community College and SUNY Ulster. It will expand to all SUNY campuses by the beginning of the 2013 school year, according to the press release.

Tramuta insisted that the costs of a college education are outweighed by the long-term benefits, and understanding financing is the first step to securing those benefits.

“Higher education is the best investment an 18-year-old freshman can make,” Tramuta said. “We know that a student who gets a college degree will make $1 million more in their lifetime than a student who does not.”

Rachel Appel, a junior double-majoring in management and political science, said she is looking forward to seeing the campaign come to Binghamton.

“I believe this campaign can do a lot of good at BU,” Appel said. “Nearly every one of my friends has taken out loans. I’m sure they would all be open to assistance.”

Montana Ortel, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering, expressed similar sentiments about the campaign.

“I know a ton of people who have graduated and feel overwhelmed by the loans they took out to get a decent education,” Ortel said. “With this guidance I feel I’ll be more apt to pay off my loans in an intelligent manner.”