Student loans are much more of a reality for kids today than they were for their parents and other previous generations of college students. The cost of education has risen so quickly that in 2014 almost seven out of 10 students graduating college had loan debt—nearly $29,000 each, on average.
This means discussing student loans needs to be a key part of family discussions on college. The earlier these talks happen, the better. I know this first-hand, as my eldest daughter is a college freshman this year.
Affordability is key
The conversation about how student loans work can include talks about what your family can afford in terms of college. At one end, a family may decide that they will find a way to pay for the best colleges to which their college-bound student is admitted—no holds barred. Even if both parents have to get second jobs, they will pay for their child to attend the most prestigious college to which he or she is accepted.
In our family, the chat was quite different: We told our daughter what we could afford and invited her to apply to colleges that were reasonably within our budget range. There was no sense in having her look for her “College Charming” and then tell her we couldn’t afford it.
We also talked early—during her sophomore and junior years in high school— about student loans and the importance of limiting them as much as possible. Why? Heavy student loan debt can be a tremendous burden on new college graduates. It can limit their choices of jobs because they often must earn enough to pay off their debt, especially if they can’t count on financial help from parents or other family members. In the long run, significant student loan debt, like any other debt, might also delay or limit the borrower’s ability to buy a home, start a business, or even begin a family.
How much is too much?
Syndicated author and radio talk show host Clark Howard suggests students not take out more in student loans (in total over four years of college) than the entry-level salary they can expect to earn their first year after college. If the student expects to earn $30,000 in their first job, that number should be the ideal student loan limit in total. (College students can estimate entry-level wages in their field with online tools such as salary.com.) Of course, seeking advice from financial aid consultants might be helpful (if pricey), and many colleges offer financial aid resources.
Learning about loans
The U.S. Department of Education requires students to enroll in online counseling when they first take out federal student loans. Sitting through it with your student may provide opportunities to help explain the concepts covered, such as accruing interest and repayment rules.
The repayment calculator was a huge eye-opener for my daughter, as she was able to see what her student loans could cost her in actual monthly payments. Making the loans real is a great way to discourage overborrowing.
More things for students to consider
Emphasizing a few key factors may be helpful to your student in understanding the essentials of college loans. For instance:
- Personal expenses. Loans aren’t intended to cover personal expenses. Your child could cover pocket money by working during college, even if that’s just five to 10 hours per week.
- Quitting college. If your student leaves school or drops down to less than part-time status, there is only a six-month grace period before your son or daughter must begin paying back federal student loans.
- Credit score. Paying loans on time and as agreed to helps your student keep his or her credit score healthy, which is important when attempting to rent an apartment, get a car loan and much more. Credit reports are available for free one time each year at annualcreditreport.com.
- Declaring bankruptcy. It’s very tough to walk away from unpaid student loans. Even if other debts are discharged during a bankruptcy, you will usually remain responsible for any federal student loans. Again, this underscores the importance of not overborrowing.
- Charging college expenses. Using credit cards is not a good choice for paying for college. A close relative of mine charged his entire senior year of college on credit cards. As you might imagine, the interest rates make paying back the loan amount incredibly challenging.
- Private student loans. These loans should be considered carefully, and perhaps only as a last resort. According to Howard, private student loan interest rates may be much higher than federal loans, and a student often has little flexibility on repayment plans. Like other school loans, private loans are not usually discharged during a bankruptcy. Students short on money might be better off attending a less expensive community college for their first two years to satisfy many general education requirements. Others might consider working more hours and attending school part-time if necessary. Borrowing from family members such as grandparents might be another option.
Post-college plans and opportunities
We emphasized to our daughter that paying off student loans should be her first priority after college. Our family places a high importance on living free of debt, and she’s getting the message that student loans are no exception to this rule. We are encouraging her to plan on “living like a student” for several years after she graduates so that she can put every dollar possible toward paying off her student loans.
Depending on your graduate’s line of work, he or she may also want to look into student loan forgiveness programs. Many teaching and public service jobs offer this as a benefit to encourage college graduates to work in underserved communities.
As Mary Hunt, author of the book Raising Financially Confident Kids, wrote: “It’s not as if student loans and big credit card balances are mandatory graduation requirements. … It is possible to graduate debt-free, but it does take a lot of work. And you’ll have to buck a financial system that encourages students to take the easy way out by diving into a lifetime of debt.”
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