If you’re off to college this fall, congratulations! You’re about to embark on what will likely be four of the best years of your life. You’ll learn new things and meet new people that could end up lifetime friends. There’ll be challenges – no question about that – long nights of studying and irascible teachers that must be pacified. However, if you do the work and keep your nose clean then four years from now you’ll have college behind you and will be ready to start your career or move on to grad school.
The most important question of all
You’ve probably already answered the most important question of all, which is how you’re going to pay for your education. If you’re typical you filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) last January and you know whether you’ll be receiving any student aid or if you’ll be required to take out student loans to finance your education. If you were a really great student throughout high school or a gifted athlete you may have received a big scholarship, which is by far the best way to pay for a college education. For example, where we live there is a full-boat scholarship program available that will pay for the entire cost of all four years of college.
If you didn’t win a great scholarship you may have been awarded a work grant or a grant-in-aid. Both of these are good because, unlike student loans, the money doesn’t have to be repaid. These are usually subtracted from your tuition bills, making the cost of college more affordable.
If borrow you must
If the only way that you can finance your education is through student loans what you want to avoid is borrowing everything you’ll need to pay for your entire four years of college. Last year people graduated owing an average of more than $32,000 in student loan debts and many students were forced to borrow even more. If you start life after college owing $32,000 it could take you 10 years or more to pay off those loans. This is a burden that would not only affect you for those 10 years but possibly for the rest of your life.
Where it starts
The problem is that some college financial aid officers are not your friends. What they concentrate on is helping their schools. Some people call this the “used car salesman mentality.” These are financial aid officers who will create any kind of financial arrangements to ensure that you get into and stay in college. The problem is that this is a short-term situation but could end up hurting you over the long term.
The real cost
There is no question about the long-term impact of student loan debt. It’s not only crippling recent graduates it’s also lowering the growth of our economy. This is due to the fact that debt-laden students end up spending years after school struggling to repay their loans instead of buying a home or saving and investing. In addition, many people have become disenchanted by the whole idea of higher education. The question they are asking themselves, and that you might ask yourself, is it worth it. Should you really be running up $30,000, $40,000 or more in student loan debt to earn a degree that might not really help you get a job?
If you’re convinced that you do need a college degree for that “dream career,” the critical thing is to keep your student loans to the very minimum. This may come under the category of, well duh, but the less money you borrow the less you will have to repay.
Talk with your financial aid officer
Before you sign on the dotted line for a student loan be sure to discuss the alternatives with your financial aid officer. It’s possible that there is other forms of aid such as a work grant that could help you reduce the amount of money you will need to borrow. In addition, there might be scholarships available that you were never made aware of.
Get a job
Once you get settled into school you might get a part-time job. College towns almost always have openings in food service and retail. It could be tough to work, say, 20 hours a week while carrying a full course load but it is possible. If you get one of these jobs be sure to use the money to help pay for next semester’s costs. Jobs in food service and retail generally pay about $9 to $10 an hour, which might not seem like much. But if you were to work those 20 hours a week this would be around $150 after taxes or a total of roughly $2100 you would have available to apply toward next semester’s costs.
Graduate in four years
A second important thing you could do to keep those student loans to a minimum is graduate in four years or less. A mistake that many students make is changing majors in mid-stream, which almost inevitably leads to a fifth year of college. If you know what this year will cost you, try multiplying that number by five instead of four and you’ll see how much more debt you’ll end up with. The courses you take in your first year or two should help you decide on your major. But think this through very carefully before you declare because if you were to change your mind during or after your junior year you’ll end up piling on much more debt. You might also think about trying to graduate in less than four years. Of course, it would cost you more to take on maybe 18 credit hours for a couple of semesters instead of the standard 15. But if you got out of college just a semester early you’d more than make up the extra cost in what you would save in living expenses. Plus, this would give you an earlier start on getting a job vs. most of your colleagues.
Don’t switch schools
Do not switch schools unless it’s an absolute necessity. If you do this it will take you longer to graduate, which means you will graduate with more debt. One recent study showed that students that transferred to a new school ended up with about $3400 more debt than those that stayed put.
Finally, here’s a short video, courtesy of National Debt Relief, with good information about student loans and how to determine how much you may need to borrow.