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Oak Hills Christian College to begin offering student-loan assistance

Jennie Shaver, an Oak Hills Christian College student, listens to the Rev. Doug Giese as he teaches her Family Life and Ministry course Thursday afternoon. Oak Hills will begin offering loan-repayment assistance for its incoming freshmen next year. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – Oak Hills Christian College is about to make the cost of college a little easier to manage.

Oak Hills, located south of Bemidji, will begin offering loan-repayment assistance next fall for its incoming freshmen pursing bachelor’s degrees from the college.

The private school, with about 145 students this year, is one of two U.S. colleges to sign up with the Loan Repayment Assistance Program Association, or LRAP, a for-profit organization based in Indiana.

Through LRAP, Oak Hills graduates will be eligible to receive financial assistance to pay back their student loans.

“We really think it’s a good solution to the problem that exists right now,” said John Engquist, Oak Hills’ director of admissions.

CNN reported last month that the average student is graduating college with $26,600 worth of student-loan debt, up 5 percent from 2010.

LRAP will offer graduates the ability to reclaim some of their loan-repayment costs as they build their careers.

Assistance is available for workers who earn up to $34,000 a year; benefits are prorated based on a graduate’s salary. For example, an employee earning $20,000 a year would be fully reimbursed for his loan repayments while a worker earning $27,000 a year would receive a 50 percent reimbursement.

“We think it’s an out-of-the box way to address the crisis facing higher education,” Engquist said, noting that the costs of higher education continue to rise.

Those high costs affect students not only after graduation, as they struggle to pay back those loans, but in early college years as they choose their majors and career paths, he said.

For instance, a student at Oak Hills might really want to go into youth ministry, but salaries in that field are not extraordinarily high., which just completed its 2012 Youth Ministry Salary Survey, reported that youth pastors in the Midwest average a salary package of $35,300; those salaries are generally much lower for entry-level workers.

LRAP would make it more manageable for a student to, financially, be able to pursue her dream vocation, Engquist noted.

The program does not completely waive the cost of college, but Engquist said it is “a safety net” for graduates.

The program, backed by a Grade A insurance company, requires that eligible students must be pursuing a bachelor’s degree, graduate from Oak Hills within six years and work at least 30 hours a week.

Oak Hills, which at $20,800 a year already offers a low private-college education, will cover the per-pupil cost of the program.

Potential students – and their parents – are responding positively to the LRAP program, Engquist said.

“It gives us a competitive edge (in attracting new students), but our hope is other colleges will pay attention,” he said. “We think this is the right thing to do for our students.”