Like many college students, recent University of Maine graduate Sarah Fearing and her family were careful to set aside money for college, but she still wound up graduating with debt.

That’s OK with Fearing, who said without the savings, she would have graduated with even more student loan debt.

“I only owe about $15,000, definitely no more than $20,000, which is really good,” said Fearing, who graduated in May with a double major in journalism and psychology. “It’s because we pulled money from different places and my parents helped. I didn’t have to accept student loans every semester.”

According to the Project on Student Debt, 78 percent of University of Maine graduates have student loan debt, with an average amount of $34,389.

Heading into college, Fearing felt pretty prepared financially.

“My parents had been buying savings bonds for me literally since I was a newborn,” she said. “By the time I was going to college, we had about $14,000 in savings bonds, so we chipped away at that throughout college.”

She also had about $8,000 in scholarship money, mostly from her hometown of Union.

But her freshman year alone – when all Orono students are required to live on campus – cost about $20,000.

“Without that scholarship money, I probably wouldn’t have been able to go,” Fearing said. She applied for financial aid, but got only about $7,500, she said.

“My parents fall right in that bracket where you don’t get too much (federal student aid) because (their income) looks good on paper, but when it comes down to it, they don’t have the money to pay for my entire college,” she said. “They can help a little, but not too much.”

Instead, she knit together money from scholarships, jobs, savings and loans. She moved off campus her sophomore year to lower her costs.

Over the four years, she also drained her personal savings account, which at one point held $18,000. Her parents chipped in several thousand dollars from their own savings over the years and she held jobs during school breaks and summers.

– Noel K. Gallagher