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College diploma still possible without debt

More than 44 million Americans hold $1.5 trillion in college debt. A sobering figure, especially in light of diminishing public funding and increasing costs of higher education.

For one local banker and his wife, who is a nurse practitioner, graduating debt-free was difficult even in the first part of the millennium. He maintains, however, that it was – and still is—very do-able. Andy and Becky (Miller) Buchanan of Farmington have both attended Mineral Area College, and indicated the key is to have a plan—even if you don’t have a plan.

“Many students fall into the same bucket we were in, you want to get a college degree, but you really haven’t figured out what you want to do,” said Andy, a vice president of First State Community Bank. “While the location and affordability are crucial, the most important thing is to start. For me, a community college was a great start. Then, you gain knowledge and make decisions about your future, all without racking up insurmountable debt. We graduated debt-free, so we didn’t have student loans to repay as we began our professional lives.”

Andy, the first in his family to earn a college degree, received his associate degree in 1998, transferring to UMSL to earn his bachelor’s in business administration with an emphasis in finance and accounting. After working as a credit analyst and a commercial lender, he joined First State Community Bank as a vice president.

“After high school, I had no real direction, kind of figuring it out as I went,” he said. “I had no scholarships and no interest in obtaining student loans, but I was able to attend classes and work full-time. Without MAC, there’s a high probability I’d have never graduated.”

Andy said the community college was also responsible for helping him work toward his four-year degree.

“If I hadn’t stopped to speak to an UMSL representative who was on campus that day, I’m not sure how things would have ended up,” he said. “That single conversation snowballed into me receiving what I believe was the first-ever Presidential Transfer Scholarship to UMSL from MAC and an accounting scholarship, which covered my UMSL tuition expenses.”

Becky took college classes while in high school and completed her associate degree in 2000. After completing her nursing degrees, she attended the University of South Alabama-Mobile where she graduated MSN Certified as a Family Nurse practitioner in 2014 through the American Association of Nurse Practitioners. After working 14 years as a bedside nurse in ICU and recovery room at Mercy Hospital in St. Louis, she is now employed in Farmington at Midwest Pain and Spine as a family practice nurse practitioner.

“After high school, I knew I wanted a health care career but was unsure exactly what,” explains the Ironton native. “MAC let me explore my options while taking classes to further my goals. It’s where I gained the confidence, foundation and experiences I needed to advance my education.

“Coming from a smaller high school, MAC was a wonderful and supportive environment to start me on my educational journey. Because the advisors were very knowledgeable and worked to ensure all my credits and classes would transfer, I didn’t have the added expense of taking additional classes.”

Now, with the state-mandated 42-hour general education block—which ensures increased transferability of course credit among Missouri’s public colleges and universities—there’s less risk of community college-to-university students having to attend extra classes for semesters, or even an extra academic year.

Andy, who is also the current president of MAC Foundation, said he was encouraged when he heard of the statewide movement among institutions, which takes effect this fall semester beginning Aug. 20.

“It’s happened too many times in the past, a student takes English Composition at one institution and the credit doesn’t transfer to another institution,” he said. “The student might be getting a top-notch education at either institution, but for diploma purposes, taking a class over again for credit that ‘counts’ costs extra time and money that students don’t often have. So this is a significant improvement.”

Andy and Becky Buchanan say MAC was instrumental in their ability to be free from any college debt.

Andy and Becky Buchanan say MAC was instrumental in their ability to be free from any college debt.

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