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Dear Liz: I am a junior in college, and I might have to take out a loan my senior year because of financial cuts in the state. Is it really a bad idea to take a loan for college?
Answer: No, it’s not. You don’t want to overdose on education debt, but a student loan that helps you get the right degree could be the best investment you’ll ever make.
Someone with a college degree will earn on average $2.3 million over the course of a working lifetime, which is $1 million more than the lifetime earnings of someone with just a high school diploma, according to a study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University in Washington. College graduates also are more likely to stay employed. The unemployment rate for people with college degrees is about half of that for people with only high school diplomas.
Of course, you’ll want to make sure there is sufficient demand for your degree to justify the costs of your education, since all college degrees are not created equal. PayScale, a site that tracks salary information, has a report on its site called “Majors That Pay You Back” that monitors median starting and mid-career incomes for various degrees.
You’ve probably heard horror stories about people winding up with massive amounts of expensive student debt. In many cases, these scholars used private student loans, which have variable rates and lack the protections of federal student loans.
Limit how much you borrow. In general, don’t borrow more than you expect to make your first year out of school. Also, exhaust all available federal student loans before you consider a private loan. If you can work a part-time job or increase your hours to avoid a private loan, do it — but don’t work so many hours that you can’t complete your schoolwork.
A loan that helps you complete school would be far better than dropping out now, since the economic payoff from a college education requires that you actually get your degree.
A few months ago I gave a verbal spanking to a woman who equated college loans with handouts. She wondered why people didn’t just delay college for a year and earn enough money to pay for their entire education, as she did back in the day.
I pointed out that there weren’t many jobs available to newly-minted high school graduates that paid $60,000, which is about the minimum you’d need to pay for a four-year degree today.
Apparently my reader isn’t the only one having trouble keeping up with the times. A recent New York Times story quoted Virginia Foxx, a Congresswoman from North Carolina who heads a House subcommittee on higher education and work force training, saying she was bewildered why people went into debt instead of working their way through school the way she did.
Here’s what Times writer Ron Lieber pointed out:
But students nowadays who try to work their way through college without parental support or loans face a financial challenge of a different order than the one that Ms. Foxx, 69, confronted as a University of North Carolina undergraduate more than 40 years ago. Today, a bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State, the largest university in her district, can easily cost $80,000 for a state resident, including tuition, room, board and other costs. Back in her day, the total was about $550 a year. Even with inflation, that would translate to just over $4,000 for each year it takes to earn a degree.
A plucky, lucky few manage to get through college with no loans or parental support. But many of those who try wind up dropping out, unable to balance the work hours required with the demands of school.
If you’re one of those who may be stuck trying to pay your own way, Zac Bissonnette’s book “Debt Free U” can provide helpful guidance. If you’re a parent or a policymaker, however, you should check your views about the viability of kids’ working their way through college with today’s realities.
Dear Liz: My daughter co-signed a student loan for a friend who failed to pay the debt. Now my daughter cannot refinance her home because this loan appears on her otherwise very good credit reports. She has been getting calls from a collection agency.
I called the agency to discuss what it would cost to get her released from all liability regarding this loan, and they gave me an offer of $13,000 to satisfy the debt, which is now $35,000. I countered with $9,000, since the original loan was just $15,000, but they refused. My daughter is unhappy about paying anything, since her ex-friend is a gainfully employed attorney. Is it good business to pay what the collection agency is asking, or should I continue to negotiate?
“Lenders almost never settle for less than the outstanding principal balance of a defaulted student loan, so that may be the best she can get,” Kantrowitz said. “It may be the case that they are offering her a low settlement amount to release her from her obligation and then will go after her former friend for the remaining debt. When there are two borrowers on the hook, one borrower reaching a settlement does not cancel the debt. It merely releases that borrower from her obligation.”
Your daughter should have the settlement offer reviewed by an attorney, Kantrowitz said. The attorney should verify that the collection agency has the authority to settle the debt, and any agreement should list all of the loans involved.
“I’ve seen cases where a borrower thought she was getting a settlement of all the loans,” Kantrowitz said, “but the settlement was just for some of the loans.”
Ideally, the settlement agreement would require the lender to stop reporting the default and delinquencies to the credit bureaus, which would remove the stain from her credit reports. Not all lenders will agree to such a condition, Kantrowitz said, but removal would be better for her credit than simply having the debt reported as “satisfied.”
Also, the agreement should require that the lender provide a “paid in full” statement to your daughter as proof her debt has been settled, Kantrowitz said.
“She should keep this statement forever,” Kantrowitz said, “as defaulted loans have a tendency to resurrect themselves from time to time, [such as when] a bank reloads their database from old backup tapes [or] someone reviewing old records discovers the original promissory note.”
An attorney also could advise your daughter about taking further steps, such as suing the former friend for repayment or reporting the issue to the state bar, which has standards of professional conduct that may be violated by an unpaid debt.
Dear Liz: I read your response to the person questioning the rationale behind taxpayer-supported federal student loans. Your response was well written, but do you have any information about how much money is owed to the government for student loans and what percentage of all the loans are actually paid back in full? You mentioned that the government can garnish wages and Social Security checks and seize tax refunds, but does the government follow through and hold these people accountable? Does the government have personnel to do this or is this just a threat?
Answer: Millions of unhappy student loan borrowers can assure you the government’s considerable powers to collect defaulted student loans are much more than a threat. In addition to its own collection activities, the U.S. Department of Education also hires a number of private collection agencies to help recoup what’s owed.
As a result, the government collects more than 100 cents on every defaulted dollar once accumulated interest and penalties are included, according to the Education Department’s most recent report. On a net present value basis — when future collections are discounted back to today’s dollars — the government recovers about 80% of the defaulted debt.
Decades ago, it was possible to skip out on federal student loan debt without serious consequences. Public outrage over that fact led to much stronger collection efforts. That has resulted in the federal government recovering about $10 billion in defaulted student loan debt every year, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid.org and FastWeb financial aid sites.
Dear Liz: I am the single mother of four daughters, including one who has a serious heart condition that causes $10,000 to $30,000 in out-of-pocket medical expenses each year. These medical bills have caused me to file bankruptcy twice, but the bankruptcies have not wiped out my student loans.
I have qualified for minimum payments and deferments a couple of times but have been on a payment schedule the vast majority of the time. The interest grows faster than I can keep up, and I keep getting deeper into the hole. I am now 51 and have over $45,000 in student loans. After a year and a half of being unemployed, and depleting my retirement funds to pay for COBRA health coverage, I finally found a job — I am making $30,000 a year working for a nonprofit as a social worker — but I still can’t make any progress on these loans.
The only program I can find is one in which I have to make payments, no matter how little I have, for the next 10 years if I continue to work for only nonprofits. No one can explain to me why all the money I have already paid, plus only working for nonprofits, plus my volunteer service over the years, doesn’t count for something. I am holding my breath hoping you might have some suggestions to share.
Answer: The Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program you discovered is actually a fairly recent development. Before 2007, people in your situation didn’t have an option to have their balances erased.
It’s unfortunate you didn’t know about the program earlier, since if you’d signed up when it first became available you could be partway through your required payments by now and only a few years away from having your balance forgiven.
But better late than never. The program is ideal for those who have big federal student loan debts and small incomes. If you sign up for the “income-based repayment” option, your monthly payments will be limited to 15% of your “discretionary income,” defined as the amount of your income over 150% of the poverty line for your family. Since the poverty line for a family of five is $27,010 in 2012, your required monthly payment may well be zero. Even if your household is smaller, payments under the program typically are less than 10% of your gross income, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid and Fastweb financial aid sites.
If you didn’t have a public service job, your required repayment period would be 25 years — so you are receiving some credit for your service. Public service jobs include, among others, those in public safety and law enforcement, military service, public health, public education, public interest legal services, social work in public or family service agencies and jobs at tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organizations. Government employees also are considered to have public service positions, although interestingly enough, time served as a member of Congress doesn’t count.
Dear Liz: Your answer to the parents with $200,000 in student loans for their daughters’ educations was interesting — and cautionary. I wonder, since they mentioned refinancing their home, why not explore using their equity by selling the home and renting?
Depending on the amount they have in the home, they might be able to fund more retirement as well as reduce the loan balance. Also depending on the size of the mortgage, they might be able to rent for the same monthly amount or less. Presumably, their house was big enough for four, but now they could “live well with less.” And be more flexible.
Answer: The writer did mention getting a new mortgage, but didn’t say whether it was a refinance or a modification, or whether the couple had any equity in the home. Although a conventional refinance requires considerable equity, a mortgage modification or a refinance made through the government’s HARP program would not require that they owe less than the house is worth.
If they do have equity, it would be worth considering using at least some of it to alleviate their debt burden and supplement their retirement funds. If they don’t have equity, selling the house might still be an option if they could substantially reduce their living costs. Given that their income plunged by more than half, they would be smart to cut their expenses as far as possible to free up money to save for retirement and pay their debts. Taking such a big step down in their lifestyle might be painful, but it’s often to better to do so now rather than risk being old and broke.
Dear Liz: I co-signed some private student loans for my youngest child. She graduated two years ago with about $80,000 in student debt, including federal and private loans. Like many other recent graduates, she has had a difficult time finding a job. She worked part time at a retail store until about a month ago and made around $7,000 annually. I have been helping her make reduced payments and she has gotten deferments and income-based repayment plans.
But I’m planning to retire in a few months and won’t be able to make the payments as I have been. I am heartsick about this whole situation, not just for my family, but also for thousands of young people who face this mountain of un-dischargeable debt. We desperately need some advice on how to deal with huge debt.
Answer: As you know, student loans typically can’t be shed in Bankruptcy Court. Even your Social Security benefits aren’t safe: In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the government’s ability to offset Social Security disability and retirement benefits when a borrower has defaulted on federal student loans.
Income-based repayment plans can provide some relief with the federal loans. This repayment option limits the required payment to 15% of your daughter’s discretionary income, and her balance can be forgiven after 25 years, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid.org financial aid site. If your daughter has no income, her required payment would fall to zero. Unlike deferment and forbearance plans, which have three-year limits, the income-based repayment allows zero payments indefinitely. She should investigate signing up for such plans for all her federal loans.
The private loans you cosigned have far fewer repayment options. Some have forbearance and deferment options, while others do not. You may be able to negotiate a lower payment temporarily, or you may not. Because private student loans’ rates and terms aren’t regulated the same way federal loans’ are, they’re considered much riskier. Using them is kind of like paying for college with credit cards, except unlike with credit cards, the debt can’t be discharged.
It’s too late to tell you that you shouldn’t have co-signed loans so close to retirement or any time you would be unable to take over the payments. If you have sufficient equity in your home, you may want to consider using it to pay off the private loans. A variable-rate home equity line of credit would allow you to pay only interest for 10 years, while a fixed-rate home equity loan would lock in today’s current low rates for the 20-year life of the loan. You will, of course, be putting your home at risk if you can’t make those payments.
Another possibility is to postpone your retirement until your daughter is gainfully employed. This may not be desirable or even possible, but at the moment you’re the only one with income to repay these loans.
Otherwise, your option is to try to negotiate an affordable repayment plan with the private lenders, which is no easy task. For more information, visit the Student Loan Borrower Assistance program at http://www.studentloanborrowerassistance.org.
That’s the mantra I’ve chanted in columns, speeches and interviews over the years. An article in today’s Wall Street Journal shows a lot of upper middle income parents aren’t listening, gauging by the amount of student loan debt they’re taking on. What the Journal found:
- Among households with annual incomes of $94,535 to $205,335 (80th to 95th percentile of all households), 25.6% had student-loan debt in 2010, compared to 19.5% in 2007. Among all households, 19.1% had education debt in 2010 compared to 15.2% three years earlier.
- The amount borrowed by upper middle income households rose to $32,869 from $26,639, after adjusting for inflation.
- Fat student loan bills are no longer an anomaly. More than three million households have a student loan balance of $50,000 or more. That compares to about 794,000 in 2001 and less than than 300,000 in 1989, after adjusting for inflation.
The Journal threw in another statistic: More than one in three households with incomes of $95,000 to $125,000 who had a child entering college in 2011 didn’t save or invest for that child’s education, according to a survey by Human Capital Research.
Here’s the deal: A child’s financial aid package will be based in large part on what the parents earn. If they have a six-figure income, or close to it, the kid won’t get much help. Colleges expect that if you have that much income, you should have been saving some of it for education–whether or not you actually did.
Even families with lesser means could find they’re getting a lot less help than they expected, with much of it coming in the form of loans rather than grants.
Either way, that means the parents, the kid or both could be taking on a lot of debt.
The Journal suggested that this burgeoning debt may lead more families to more carefully consider cost and value when considering colleges, something that “could make it difficult for all but the most selective schools to keep pushing through large tuition increases.”
We’ll see about that. In the meantime, if you’re lucky enough to have a decent income, consider putting at least some of it aside for your kids’ educations. Do it even if you won’t be able to pay for everything, or you want your kid to be mostly responsible for the cost. Every dollar you save is a dollar your child–or you–won’t have to borrow later.
Dear Liz:I owe $75,000 in student loans. It took me seven years to graduate from college due to a car accident that happened during my second year. I am now 30 and doing all I can, working 12 to 14 hours a day, but I’m not making any headway. Most if not all of my loans have gone to collections. I get the phone calls, sometimes up to 30 a day. I need some advice on how to handle all of this. It is so overwhelming. Is it possible to consolidate all of this? Make one monthly payment to one entity?
Answer: You can consolidate your federal student debt into one loan and stretch out the repayment term, which could make the debt easier to pay. You may also qualify for the income-based repayment option. Most borrowers in the income-based plan have payments that are less than 10% of their gross incomes, said Mark Kantrowitz, editor of FinAid.org and author of “Secrets to Winning a Scholarship.” After 25 years of payments, you would qualify for forgiveness of any remaining balance. The payment period is shortened to 10 years if you’re in a public service job.
Private student debt isn’t nearly as flexible. You typically can’t consolidate private student loans, and lenders offer fewer repayment options — and no forgiveness.
If you have both types of debt, you may be able to make some progress on repayment by consolidating your federal loans and paying the minimum possible on those so that you can throw every available dollar at your private loans.
If you have only private debt, you’ll need to negotiate directly with your lenders to see what options are available for more affordable repayment plans. It’s important to do this as soon as possible, since if your delinquency drags on for nine months your loans will be considered in default. That can have serious consequences for your credit history and your finances.
The National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project has a lot of information and resources for student borrowers, including information about loan rehabilitation and negotiating with lenders. You can also talk to the Default Resolution Group at the U.S. Department of Education by calling (800) 621-3115.