In case you missed it: the youth edition

Cut up cardsSpurning credit cards means younger people have less toxic debt but they may be doing inadvertent damage to their credit scores and costing themselves money. Learn more in “Why young people hate credit cards.

Read some smart answers to the awkward questions your kids may ask about family finances in “One way money is a lot like sex.

You’ve probably read that student loan rates doubled on Monday, but that’s not quite true. Read “Student loan rates: Facts amid the fictions” for the straight scoop.

Have a great weekend!

Student loan rates: facts amid the fictions

Paid education. Graduate cap on bank notesStudent loan rates aren’t about to double, despite the headlines.

Only rates for newly-issued, subsidized federal student loans are set to rise July 1 from 3.4% to 6.8% because Congress couldn’t get its act together to prevent the increase.

Loans that have already been made won’t be affected. Neither will there be an impact on unsubsidized federal student loans, since those already carried a 6.8% rate, or on PLUS loans for graduate students and parents, which have a 7.9% rate.

Subsidized loans traditionally got lower rates because the borrowers have demonstrated financial need. But subsidized loans also charge no interest:

  • while the student is still in school at least half time
  • for the first six months after the student leaves school and
  • during an approved postponement of loan payments.

Those are powerful advantages not available on unsubsidized loans, which is what you get when you can’t demonstrate financial need.

College expert Lynn O’Shaughnessy points out in her MoneyWatch column that the doubling of subsidized loan rates actually won’t have an outsized impact:

The hike will mean that a borrower will spend less than $7 a month repaying that extra interest, according to Mark Kantrowitz, the publisher of Edvisors Network and a national financial-aid expert. Keeping the subsidized rate at 3.4 percent would cost the government $41 billion over 10 years, which is a high price to pay to save borrowers a few dollars a month.

Kantrowitz has said it’s unlikely that higher interest rates would dissuade many from attending college, and he would rather see the money go toward increasing Pell grants for the neediest students, which would do a lot more to encourage them to get a degree. Here’s what he had to say in a New York Times op-ed piece co-authored with O’Shaughnessy:

But the partisan posturing is a distraction from far more pressing issues that face students and parents who must borrow to cover their college costs. What’s lost is how Congress, in numerous ways, has been hurting the most vulnerable college students and dithering on the crisis of college affordability….Congress has starved the Pell grant program, an educational lifeline for low-income families.

He goes on to question why most student loan rates are so much higher than the government’s cost, something that’s turned education debt into a profit center for Uncle Sam. Congress also hasn’t done anything about the suffocating student loan debt many graduates have already taken on or the continuing (if somewhat moderated) increase in education costs. Private student loans remain especially problematic, since they lack the consumer protections of federal student loans and many lenders have been unwilling to work with borrowers to create affordable repayment plans. I’ve argued that we should give bankruptcy judges the power to modify private student loan terms as a way of forcing lenders to play ball.

Nobody wants to pay more interest, but there are bigger problems with the way we pay for higher education than a hike in the subsidized student loan rate.

It’s National 529 Day!

College studentWho doesn’t love obscure commemorative/promotional days? But this one is worthwhile since it brings attention to the state-run college savings plans that can help you pay for your children’s future education.

Here are the most important facts you need to know about college savings:

If you can save for college, you probably should. The higher your income, the more the financial aid formulas will expect you to have saved for college–even if you haven’t actually saved a dime. Even people who consider themselves middle class are often shocked by how much schools expect them to contribute toward the cost of education. (By the way, it’s the parents’ assets and income that determine financial aid, so if you don’t help your kid with college costs, he or she could be really screwed–no money for school and perhaps no hope of need-based financial aid.)

More savings=less debt. Most financial aid is in the form of loans these days, so your saving now will reduce your kid’s debt later. (A CFP once told me to substitute the words “massive debt” when I see “financial aid.” So when you say, “I want my child to get the most financial aid possible,” I hear: “I want my child to get the most massive debt possible.”

529 plans get favorable treatment in financial aid formulas. These accounts are presumed owned by the parent, so less you’re expected to spend less than 6% of the total each year–compared to 35% of student-owned assets.

Learn more by reading “The best and worst 529 plans” and this primer on Motley Fool.

Student loans can pay off with nursing degree

Dear Liz: I am about to begin graduate school to get my master’s degree in nursing to eventually become an advanced registered nurse practitioner. I have Googled scholarships, grants, fellowships, and am coming up empty-handed. I am fearfully looking at student loans to finance my degree (it would be about $34,000). I am appalled at the rates on federal student loans, and private school loans or just personal private loans are even worse. Are there any other options that I haven’t discovered? I don’t have any school debt to date, so this is all very daunting.

Answer: Let’s start with the good news: Your education should pay off. Advanced registered nurse practitioners earn a median of $86,625, according to the salary tracking site Payscale. That compares with a median of $55,311 for a registered nurse. There are no guarantees in education, any more than there are in life, but you should be able to recoup the cost of your education fairly quickly.

To find scholarships, you need to know where to look. One place to start is the Fastweb database, which tracks scholarships, grants and other financial aid programs. Fastweb lists the National Student Nurses Assn., the American Assn. of Colleges of Nursing and a variety of smaller programs, many of which are school-specific, publisher Mark Kantrowitz said. If you’re willing to serve in a high-need area, you also can check out HRSA Nurse Corps Scholarship (at http://www.hrsa.gov/loanscholarships/scholarships/nursing/). The ROTC also offers scholarships.

“Many employers of nurses provide signing bonuses or loan repayment assistance programs to help new nurses repay their student loans, since nurses remain in demand,” Kantrowitz noted.

You’re smart to be cautious about education debt, since too many people have overdosed on student loans. However, student loans in moderation can help you get ahead financially if you’re borrowing for the right education.

Since there’s strong demand in your field and excellent pay, you shouldn’t shy away from federal student loans, which offer fixed interest rates and a number of consumer protections, including forbearance and deferral in the event you become unemployed. You would be borrowing far less than you’re likely to make the first year after you graduate, so your payments shouldn’t be burdensome. If you decide to pursue a career in public health or work for a nonprofit, you could qualify for federal student loan forgiveness after 10 years.

Graduating without student loans is tough

Education savingsA 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.

Settling co-signed student loan debt

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?

Answer: That sounds like a pretty good offer, said financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid and Fastweb websites.

“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.

“Compassionate review” may lead to student loan discharge

Dear Liz: We have a family member who recently was approved by Social Security for a complete disability claim. This person will never work again but has an outstanding student loan. The lender has a formal mechanism to apply for loan forgiveness, but is refusing to accept medical documentation of the disability. What appeal process is there and how can we force them to act? Do we need to retain legal counsel and incur additional expense to enforce a legal process and achieve loan forgiveness?

Answer: Federal student loans offer a “total and permanent disability discharge” that forgives outstanding education debt. You can find the rules and an application at DisabilityDischarge.com.

The rules for private student loans, however, vary by lender. Four lenders — Sallie Mae, New York Higher Education Services Corp., Discover and Wells Fargo — offer a discharge for total and permanent disability that is similar to the federal one, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid.org and FastWeb.com financial aid sites. The Sallie Mae discharge is also provided on loans made through lenders that market the Sallie Mae loans, such as Commerce Bank, Fifth Third Bank and Regions Bank, Kantrowitz said.

Other lenders do not offer such a discharge, but all have a compassionate review process for their private student loans, he said.

“Borrowers in a difficult financial situation, or their family or other representatives, should contact the lender that holds the loan directly,” Kantrowitz said. “The call center staff are not always familiar with the compassionate review process.”

Lenders are generally more likely to cancel some or all of the debt, or at least reduce the interest rate, in a situation that permanently affects the borrower’s ability to repay, Kantrowitz said. They are less likely to make an adjustment when the loan was cosigned and the cosigner is capable of repaying the debt.

“But it varies,” Kantrowitz said. “I’ve seen some cases in which the borrower was military and killed in action where the lender forgave the loans even though the cosigners were capable of repaying the debt. Another example involved a mother whose daughter dropped dead on an athletic field and the mother’s anguish was palpable in the letter to the lender.”

Debt cancellation comes with another issue: taxes. Forgiven debt is typically treated as taxable income by the IRS. Your family member may be able to avoid the taxes if he or she is insolvent, but a tax professional should be consulted.

Don’t tap retirement funds to pay kids’ student loans

Dear Liz: I’m in my 50s. My kids have college loan debts that might total more than $200,000. I allowed them to take out loans because I expected to inherit $300,000 to help them pay off the debt. Now that inheritance will not happen.

I have $250,000 saved for retirement. When I’m 58 1/2 years old, I would like to pull that money out and pay some or all of these debts. Or use home equity. I’ve recently been downsized in employment, but I am looking to increase my income so I can help with their debt. Advice?

Answer: If your goal is to impoverish yourself so your kids will have to take care of you in your old age, by all means proceed with your plan. Otherwise, you need to rethink this.

You’ve been laid off in the middle of what should be your peak earning years. Older workers often have a tougher time than younger ones finding replacement jobs, even in a better economy than this one. You may not be able to replace your former income, which means you may not be able to add much to the amount you’ve already saved. You should be conserving your resources, including your home equity, and not squandering it repaying debts that aren’t yours.

And “squandering” is the right word. You may be able to avoid paying federal and state tax penalties on withdrawals under certain conditions; distributions made after age 59 1/2 avoid the penalties, as do those made if you’re “separated from service” if the job termination occurred in or after the year you turn 55. But you’ll still owe income taxes on the withdrawal, and those can be considerable.

Your children are the ones who will benefit from their educations. Those educations should allow them to earn incomes to repay these loans. The amount of debt they’ve accrued might be excessive — you didn’t specify how many kids, or whether this debt is being incurred pursuing undergraduate or graduate degrees. Ultimately, though, they will be in a better position to pay the debt than you are.

If you promised them help you can’t deliver, sit down with them now to break the bad news and strategize on how they can finish their educations without incurring substantially more debt.

Your story also should serve as a cautionary tale for anyone counting on an inheritance to pay future bills. Until the money is in your bank account, it’s not yours and shouldn’t be part of your financial planning.

Government recoups defaulted student loan 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.

Student loans aren’t handouts

Dear Liz: I am increasingly annoyed by the entitlement attitude of today’s students. Why should the taxpayers (me) pay to educate somebody else’s children? I remember when there was no such thing as a student loan. If I wanted to go to college and didn’t have the money for tuition, I delayed starting college until I had worked for a year and saved up the money. Many of my friends did this, as did I. Now these kids stand around with their hands out looking for somebody to bring them their education on a silver platter. I wish you would say something about this in your column.

Answer: Let’s start with the obvious, which is that an education costs a heck of a lot more than it did when you were in college.

The College Board reports that a student attending an in-state, four-year public university needs to budget an average of $22,261 to pay for the 2012-13 year. Which means the total cost to get an undergraduate degree would be about $90,000, assuming he or she can get all the required courses in four years (something that’s increasingly difficult because of state budget cuts in education).

Not to put too fine a point on it, but there aren’t many jobs these days that would enable someone (particularly someone without a college degree) to save the full cost of a college education in a single year. Even someone who started out with two years of community college would need to budget about $8,000 for each of those years, according to the College Board, and the total cost of a four-year degree would still be around $60,000. Some people would pay less if they got a lot of financial aid or lived at home, but any way you cut it, the tab is much, much higher than it has been in decades past.

Something else has changed since you were a student, and that’s the importance of having a college education if you want to have a decent financial life and remain in the middle class. In your day, people without college educations — even those without high school diplomas — could find well-paying jobs. Those jobs have increasingly been phased out by technology or they’ve gone overseas. The manufacturing and technical jobs that remain often require at least some post-secondary education. Having a college degree is what having a high school diploma used to be — an essential entry-level credential in many fields.

Our nation and our economy need educated workers if we’re to be competitive in a global economy. It also would help to have an expanding pool of well-paid workers to pay taxes toward things like roads, defense, police and fire protection and Social Security, from which you presumably benefit.

This is why governments promote post-secondary education with a relatively small amount of grants for the needy, and a relatively large amount of loans for everyone else. The first federal student loans were part of the National Defense Education Act of 1958; today, most students borrow at least some portion of their education costs.

You see, most kids (and their parents) aren’t standing around waiting for a handout. Most financial aid these days comes in the form of loans, which have to be paid back. These loans aren’t necessarily cheap — the rate on a Stafford student loan is 6.8%, while graduate and parent PLUS loans have 7.9% rates (plus a 4% origination fee that’s deducted from each disbursement).

If students or their parents default, the government can garnish their wages, seize their tax refunds, take a chunk of their Social Security checks and trash their credit. There is no statute of limitations on federal student loans and only rare relief in Bankruptcy Court, so borrowers can be pursued to their graves for what they owe.

Yes, many families overspend on education and overdose on student loans. The majority, however, graduate with a reasonable amount of debt (about $26,000 on average) that can be repaid from their now-higher earnings. Student loans aren’t a handout — they’re an investment in both the graduate and our economy.