Most college students graduate with manageable student loan debt, but there are plenty of exceptions. Marketplace Money highlighted one case last week: the medical student who expected to owe nearly half a million in loans by the time he graduated. I was in the studio with host Tess Vigeland and senior producer Paddy Hirsch to talk to this guy and discuss his options, as well as the choices he made that led him into such whopping debt. You can listen to our conversation here.
One point that Tess made, and that I’d reiterate to anyone thinking about student loans, is that taking on debt is a choice. No matter what your financial situation or education goals, you don’t “have to” borrow gobs of money to pay for school. You can go to a cheaper school, serve in the military and pay for school with the G.I. Bill, or work while you study, among other choices. You reasonably may choose to borrow some money to get through college, but if you borrow more in total than what you expect to make the first year you’re out of school, then you’re borrowing trouble.
Our caller was in a bind since he’ll need to start paying back his loans while he’s in residency. But with federal loans, at least for now, he has the option of an income-based repayment plan that will ensure he has enough money left over to eat. Once he’s in practice, he should make somewhere around $300,000 a year, which will ease the pain of paying back all that debt.
Far too many borrowers aren’t as lucky. They’re unemployed, or never got their degrees, or owe far more than they’re ever likely to earn. Nobody warned them when they were 17 or 18 and beginning to sign up for this debt that it could dog them for the rest of their lives. Private student loans in particular should come with warning labels, since they’re like paying for college with credit cards–except, unlike credit cards, the debt can almost never be erased in bankruptcy court. Read “Wipe out your student loan debt,” my column for MSN on this topic, for more details about the differences between federal and private loans, plus strategies that can help you deal with your education debt.