St. Mary High School junior Madeline Kerr was one of 12 students to win the national grand prize award in the second annual Payback Challenge, an essay contest calling on high school students to write about the affordability of higher education.

Kerr will receive $5,000 to be used for educational purposes. The Payback Challenge is sponsored by Next Gen Personal Finance, a nonprofit organization that works to provide access to a high-quality personal finance education.

Some 96 students nationwide earned honorable mention awards of $800.

The Payback game is a virtual decision-making game that shows the expenses involved in going to college. Students chose the kind of college they wanted to go to and then made decisions as to how to pay for the experience.

More than 800 students wrote a 250-word essay answering one of two questions: "How has the Payback game changed your perspective on the real-life decisions you will make when paying for college?" or "What steps can you take now in order to complete college with as little debt as possible?"

Kerr answered the first question by saying that having a balance is the key to the whole process.

"When you're choosing colleges, you have to have a balance between the prestige you want, affordability and how far it is from home," she said.

"When you're thinking about how you're going to pay off your college debt, you have to balance things like if you're going to take up a job, how many hours you're going to work and the focus that you need to dedicate to your studies.

"The good amount of time to spend at a job (while in college) is 10 to 15 hours a week. Anything more than that would be detrimental. If you want to work your way through college, it's important not to spend too much time away (from study)."

Kerr said she would like to go to an in-state college, perhaps the University of Kentucky, or Georgetown College in Washington, D.C., or Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.

"I'm really interested in journalism or political science, maybe," she said. "I'd be interested in doing something like communications for a politician, maybe speech-writing or something like that."

Kerr, 17, is the daughter of Christine Matlock and Patrick Kerr, both of Paducah.

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