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And a lot of young people are having trouble paying this debt. The exact number of struggling borrowers is a bit of a mystery, as I wrote in this week’s Reuters’ column, “Confusing data flummoxes fixing of student loan defaults.” But it’s safe to say a sizable portion of borrowers is having trouble paying down their education debt.
A college education, or at least some post-graduate education, will be a virtual necessity if you want to remain in the middle class in the 21st century. But believing that any investment in any education will pay off is naïve. The thing is, the colleges know better, or at least their financial aid staffs should. But their vested interest in selling educations typically means they don’t step in or even offer warnings as their teenage and twenty-something students pile on ridiculous amounts of debt.
Here’s what I wish every college student and every parent knew:
1. You should stick to federal student loans. These loans have fixed rates, tons of consumer protections and most importantly, limits on how much you can borrow. You typically can only borrow $5,500 for your freshmen year. You typically can’t borrow more than $31,000 for an undergraduate education. That makes it virtually impossible to take on too much debt as long as you get the degree. Can’t afford the education you want with just federal loans? Then you need to look for cheaper schools.
2. Steer clear of private student loans. Honestly, these loans should have warning stickers plastered all over them, like cigarette packs. The rates are typically variable, there are few options if you can’t afford the payments and you can borrow far more than you could ever repay. They should only be considered if the total amount you’ll borrow in both federal and private loans is no more than you expect to make your first year out of school.
3. Mom and Dad should not risk their retirement. Federal parent PLUS loans have some of the advantages of federal student loans. The rates are fixed and there are some repayment options (parents can choose extended, graduated or income-contingent payments, but not income-based or “Pay as You Earn,” the most helpful payment plans for overburdened debtors). But unlike federal student loans, there aren’t reasonable limits on what you can borrow. Parents’ ability to repay isn’t taken into account, and they can borrow up to the full amount of their child’s education. That’s a recipe for disaster. Parents should consider borrowing for college only if they’re able to comfortably repay the debt AND continue saving adequately for their own retirements.
4. You should get through school as fast as possible. If Mom and Dad are paying the bill in cash, then you can afford to party, pack your schedule with electives and switch majors 10 times. If your future self is paying the bill via loans, then you need to get your act together. Get help—find a mentor or advisor who cares about you enough to set you on the right path. The place to look is among your school’s best teachers. Ask around, because these teachers get talked about; take their classes; ask for their help.