Paying for College

Avoiding the Student Loan Swamp

Let's imagine that you are standing on the metaphorical shore of the sea of higher education. With your binoculars, you scan the horizon for interesting sights. You may see some cruise ships filled with high school seniors touring prospective colleges, tankers filled with cash headed to pump funds into university endowments, and maybe some fishing vessels trolling for prospective applicants. Just another routine day at the beach, eh?  You couldn't be more wrong.

Now, let's suppose that you want a more scenic view of the sea and you hire a helicopter for a more dramatic panorama. As your pilot lifts you off, you head toward the horizon, past the cruise ships, the tankers, and fishing boats. A beautiful sight. But, as you penetrate past the horizon, your binoculars bring into focus a spine-chilling image. You see a series of ever-increasing swells slowly but surely building into what is about to become a huge tsunami of college student debt that will sink both families, current students, and recent graduates. Where is the tsunami warning system that promised to alert us of such impending calamity?


Good question. Others have asked that, too. For example, Peter J Reilly, writing in Forbes, asks, "Is There a Media Blackout of the Student Loan Crisis?" That's what's known as a rhetorical question, of course. The facts are stunning. Student debt has now surpassed credit card debt in America. So, for those of you high schoolers and your Moms and Dads, you should should be asking yourself, "How can I avoid being sucked down into the undertow of that impending tsunami or getting mired in the dreaded debt swamp?"

That's another good question, maybe a great one. Well, to help answer that, I asked Bobbi Dempsey, founder of BrokeParents.com, which offers advice on creative ways parents can save and earn money, to enlighten us on how to save yourself from the student debt dilemma. On her site, Bobbi also shares financial aid tips in a series of short special reports available at FinancialAidLessons.com. So, grab your life jacket and listen up. Here's Bobbi's valuable counsel.

Avoiding the Student Loan Swamp

by Bobbi Dempsey

Soon-to-be college students who have already sweated through the application and acceptance process might be facing another very stressful task right about now: reviewing financial aid offers to figure out how the heck you will actually pay for this.

Unfortunately, for many students, this will probably involve loans—and possibly lots of them. Just in my own family, we have at least two dozen current or recent college students, and all but a few of them have considerable student loan debt (in some cases totaling $50,000 or more).

Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Fastweb.com and FinAid.org, had some interesting points about the student debt crisis—and a great list of proposed suggestions to help solve this problem—in an article he wrote for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

I like many of his ideas, and am very much in favor of his push for mandatory financial education for would-be student borrowers. If you (or your child) are considering borrowing money for school, first educate yourself about exactly what that entails. I’ve encountered many students who have already incurred considerable debt yet seem to be uninformed about the possible ramifications if they have trouble repaying that debt. Many seem to have a plan that, worst case scenario, they will file bankruptcy—apparently unaware that student loans cannot be discharged through bankruptcy (except in very rare circumstances).

Some of my quick tips for avoiding the student loan trap:

Study your financial aid offers closely. Keep an eye out for loans, and make sure you are comparing apples to apples—some schools’ aid letters may have loans included, while others may not unless you request them. Be sure you are using figures that don’t include loans when comparing your actual costs.

Consider whether you honestly need this money. I know many students who treated loan checks like lottery winnings, using this money to take vacations, go on shopping sprees or buy a new car. I personally don’t think students should be allowed to get aid that exceeds their actual school costs—this shouldn’t be a situation where you can make a profit. If you don’t urgently need this money in order to stay in school, turn it down.

Stick to your guns. Frankly, the system often doesn’t make it easy for you to avoid loans. You really have to have a lot of determination and go out of your way to stay away from them. At my sons’ school, they automatically list loans in the financial aid package, and calculate the bill accordingly. The student has to go through a process online to decline the loans or call the school and ask to have them removed from the aid package so a new bill can be calculated. I think the “no loans” version should be the default setting, not the other way around.

Use the net price calculator. Colleges are now required to have a net price calculator on their website. This lets students plug in their financial information and find out their estimated net price—meaning, how much their actual bottom line cost will be, after grants and other non-loan aid is subtracted. (Some calculators will then allow you to go another step and factor in loans, work income, etc. But by looking at the initial figure, you can see what you would need to pay if you don’t take any loans.) CollegeBoard has a net price calculator guide that provides helpful tips.

Consider which costs you can cut. When providing your cost of attendance, schools often include a variety of “extra” costs, in addition to unavoidable ones like tuition. For example, they may include off-campus housing costs (if you won’t be living in a dorm), books, transportation and other expenses. Some of these are things you may be able to get cheaper, or may not need at all.

If you must take loans, borrow from Uncle Sam. While any student loan debt can be a burden, the federal government must follow a host of rules regarding the maximum amounts they lend, the interest rate and repayment options. Private lenders have much fewer restrictions—plus the interest rates are variable and are generally much higher than that of federal loans.

Try to negotiate. Contact the schools you really want to attend and see if they can sweeten the pot a little but offering any other non-loan aid. While some won’t budge, it’s worth taking a little time to give it a shot.

One last tip: act fast. If you haven’t submitted all your required forms yet, do it now. You may lose out on aid if you miss the deadline. Also, some aid programs (especially those provided by the school itself) operate on a “first come, first served” basis, so the sooner you apply, the more likely you are to get aid.

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Wisdom, indeed. Trust me when I say that the path to the student loan swamp can be a very slippery slope. Don't believe me? Check out this spirited discussion on the College Confidential forum. Remember: The credit rating you save may be your own!

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.