Student loans have become a huge problem. According to an analysis of government data from The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), some 70% of recent college grads have education debt, and the total amount borrowed works out to an average of more than $30,000 per borrower. So burdensome is this debt that the U.S. Education Department reports more than 40% of borrowers are behind on their payments or have stopped making them altogether.
This does not have to be your fate.
Start by exploring funding options that don’t include borrowing. There are a number of scholarships and grants available to help you pay for college and fill those financial gaps. If you still find that you need to borrow, here are a few expert tips to help you avoid higher-ed horror stories.
NOTE: Even if you are trying to avoid borrowing, fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) as soon as it is available. You may qualify for a Federal Pell Grant (the FAFSA is required to determine Pell Grant eligibility).
Before You Borrow
Before you borrow money, make sure you have a sense of your personal finances. Track every cent you spend. Save the receipts, no matter how small the purchase, or keep a running tally by using an app like Mint.com.
Keep your needs and wants separate, and categorize your expenses in a way that is easy to record and makes sense to you. For example:
At the end of the month, you will see how much of your money is going to each expense, and how much you have left over. This will give you a realistic snapshot of your lifestyle, and what you can afford. You’ll probably find a few wants that you can live without when you see how much you could save.
Be Clear About What You're Going to Study
One reason why college costs so much for so many students is that many don’t graduate in four years. Surprised? According to CompleteCollege Four-Year Myth," a report from Complete College America, the four-year graduation rate at public universities ranges from 19% to 36%. Some flunk out. Others, who fail to graduate in four years, drop out. And many others end up with extended stays on campus because they change academic majors.
It's far better to enter school with as much clarity as possible. Knowing what you want to study can help you avoid the five- or six-year college plan and the additional costs─and student loans─that may come with it.
If you’re a high school student, there are numerous online assessments designed to help connect your skills, interests, and personality to careers that might be a good fit. To get a taste of what these tools have to offer, check out:
Increase Your Earnings
You should also consider earning college credits in high school. Advanced Placement (AP) tests, College Level Entrance Program (CLEP) and Proficiency Examination Program (PEP) tests can be used to earn college credit while you’re still in high school. Other options include taking summer classes and general education courses at a local community college and advanced standing exams after arriving on the college campus. This will help you graduate in 3 years instead of 4 (or more realistically, 4 years instead of 5 or 6), especially if you take a heavier academic course load.
Taking longer than four years to earn your bachelor's degree can take a toll on your wallet's wellness. Check out this report on www.completecollege.org for details.
Take a Gap Year
Taking a year off in between high school and college has been a popular practice in Europe for many years and is rapidly growing in popularity in the U.S. So much so that there is now a gap year association as well as consulting organizations that help you and your family (for a fee) determine whether a gap year makes sense for you, and if so, how to best structure the gap year. Some schools will accept students and then allow them to defer enrollment for a year. The University of North Carolina even offers a global gap year fellowship.
A gap year can be used to earn money for college or explore career interests. Either way, it can help lessen the need for education loans.
After You Borrow
If you have already taken out education loans to pay for college, here are two practical steps for minimizing the financial burden.
Create a Post-College Budget
Numerous surveys have found that students with education loans have little idea what they've gotten themselves into financially.
A recent survey by Lendedu, found less than 10% of student borrowers understood how long it would take to pay off their loans or what interest rate they were being charged Less than 30% understood that if they fail to repay on time, the government could garnish their wages or withhold their tax refunds.
A 2014 study by the Brookings Institute found that among first-year students with student loans, 17% said they didn't realize they even had loans.
If you're going to borrow, you need to understand what that means, know what you owe, and understand what it's going to take to repay. One of the best reality checks is to calculate the monthly cost of your loan payment while you're still in school. Then, create a detailed budget using a plan such as one described on Edvisors.com.
Creating a budget that includes student loan payments may help you borrow more responsibly. At the very least, it'll help you understand how much you can afford for housing and other expenses after you graduate and may persuade you to avoid taking on other debts, such as a car loan.
Prioritize Accelerated Repayment
Under a standard loan repayment plan, a student loan is to be paid off in 10 years. But you don't have to take that long, and the sooner you can be done with debt the better; especially since there are no penalties for paying off a student loan early. Commit now to putting your student loan debt on an accelerated payoff schedule.
The monthly cost calculator mentioned above enables you to run some "what-if" scenarios based on adding different amounts on top of your required payments. Seeing how quickly you could be out of debt may motivate you to live beneath your means after graduating and pay your loan off early.
Shape Your Own Future
Today, the burden of student loans is causing many current and former students to delay getting married, put off starting a family, and give up on buying a home. But it doesn't have to be that way for you.
Whether you're a high-school student who's just thinking about college financing options or a college student who has already taken on debt, these simple steps should help you keep student loans from taking over your life.