Don’t buy an education you can’t afford

Dear Liz: Please make me feel like I’m doing the right thing. My daughter happens to be very talented academically and athletically. She will graduate from one of the best prep schools in the country. She also plays ice hockey and is being recruited by some of the best schools. However, we are of middle-class means. We were given outstanding aid from her prep school, which made it very affordable. The net price calculators of the colleges recruiting her indicate we won’t get nearly the same level of support.

We have a lot of equity in our home and about $25,000 total in college funds for both of our children (we also have a son in 9th grade). We make about $185,000 as a family and pay about 12% to mandatory retirement and healthcare accounts. I’m hoping by some magical formula we can beat the “calculator” but I’m not so confident. So please tell me that paying for an elite education is worth our sacrifices. Our daughter has worked very hard to put herself in a position to gain entry into these schools, but I just need an expert to make me feel better.

Answer: An expert who makes you feel better about buying an education you can’t afford isn’t doing you any favors.

So let’s do a reality check. The amount you have saved for both your children would pay for a little more than one semester at most elite schools, which run around $60,000 a year these days. If she finishes in four years, that’s a price tag of about a quarter of a million dollars.

Of course, most college students don’t pay the sticker price for college. They get some kind of help. You, however, can’t expect much of that help, since you’re really not “of middle-class means.” At your current income, you make more money than about 95% of American households. Financial aid formulas don’t particularly care that you may live in an expensive area or that you prioritized spending over saving, only realizing too late that you can’t afford the schools your daughter wants to attend.

The exceptions may be Ivy League schools, many of which have committed to capping tuition costs even for upper-income families. If your daughter gets into one of those schools, she may have a shot at an affordable education.

Other schools may be willing to give her “merit aid” to induce her to attend, especially if she’s an outstanding hockey player and they want outstanding hockey players. But you’ll still be left with a sizable bill and only one way to pay for it: borrowing, either from your home equity or via federal student loans. Your daughter can borrow $5,500 in federal loans her first year, but as parents you can borrow up to the full cost of her education from the federal PLUS loan program.

Which leads to the question: Is taking on up to a quarter of a million dollars in debt for an undergraduate degree a sacrifice or is it insane? Before you answer, consider that some research shows that students who are accepted to elite schools, but attend elsewhere, do just as well in life as people who actually attend those elite schools. (The exceptions are kids from lower-income families, who actually do get a boost in life from attending elite schools. Obviously, that doesn’t include your child.)

Also consider how you’ll feel about making payments of $1,800 a month or so for the next 30 years to pay for this education. And how you’ll feel telling your son, “Sorry, kid, we spent all the money on your sister. You’re on your own.”

The picture may not be as grim as all that. You may get a better deal from one of these schools than you expect. But you should start managing your daughter’s expectations now and look for some colleges you can actually afford in case the dream schools don’t come through for her.

Co-signed loan burdens parent with student debt

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.

How to make headway on student loans

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.