Student debt is exploding, burdening some 40 million borrowers with an often crippling obligation that can take decades to pay off. And there are ripple effects to personal finances and the larger economy.
“The reality of student debt is honestly just now starting to sink in. We see the percentage of home ownership by the age of 30 dropping from 33 percent to 23 percent among individuals with student debt,” said Daniel Haitz of the college planning website eduSquared. “That's a startling trend that has only occurred in the last 10 years. What's crazier is that student debt in America grew at 7 percent last year and isn't showing signs of stopping.”
From 2008 to 2014, student loan debt surged by 84 percent, according to a study by Experian. The $1.2 trillion in student debt now surpasses home equity loans and lines of credit, credit card and automotive debt.
As presidential candidates debate the cost of college, prospective and past students remain faced with the real challenge of paying for higher education. And for those considering financial aid, there are ways to tame student debt. Some of the best solutions are the most simple.
Starting to save for college as early and systematically as possible is one of the most reliable strategies to limit student loan dependency.
Setting aside just $100 a month in an educational savings account earning a modest 6 percent a year can grow to more than $16,000 over 10 years and $49,000 over 20 years.
So-called "529 accounts" offer a way to save with significant tax breaks (for instance, any funds used to pay for qualifying educational purposes can be withdrawn tax-free.)
“Students and families should start saving early to pay for college, if possible,” said Bob Collins, vice president of financial aid at Western Governors University. “One of the smartest ways to save is through a 529 savings account — which is a great tax-advantaged savings vehicle.”
Another potential debt buster is the choice of school, for the first year or two. According to the College Board, the average annual cost for tuition, room and board and other fees at a two-year community college was $11,438 in 2015-16 — some $8,000 less than “bargain” rates at a four-year state school. Even transferring to an expensive school to finish off the final two years can significantly slash costs.
“Community college credits typically have a 70 percent discount,” said Haitz. “A lab science is a lab science. These types of classes are perfect for transferring into schools.”
Compare your earning potential to the total cost of your education (the Economic Research Institute has a salary potential calculator here). Take that into account when considering where to attend school, your area of study and just how much student debt may be reasonable.
“If borrowers anticipate a low starting salary in their field, they need to consider the impact this will have on their financial situation if they have significant student loan debt,” said Jessica Ferastoaru, a student loan counselor at the credit counseling service Take Charge America.
The debt beast
Forty million borrowers attest to the necessity of student loans. But there are choices that can lessen the burden.
First, file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to see if you qualify for federal and state grants, which do not have to be paid back.
If grants aren't available and you need a loan, don’t overborrow. As Zina Kumok of the blog Debt Free After Three pointed out, many students automatically accept whatever loan amount they’re offered: “Try taking out less. Students should try to work part-time and pay for some of their expenses.”
“If students must borrow money, they should only borrow enough to cover their unmet direct costs — tuition and fees,” added Collins.
For more help, studentloan.com has a handy student loan estimator here.
Different loans have different features. For example, federal loans charge less interest than private loans and offer more favorable repayment terms. While many private loans require borrowers to begin paying them back while still on school, federal loans don’t mandate payback until the student graduates, leaves school or cuts back attendance to less than half time.
Consider government income-driven plans where the payment is based on income, family size, state of residency and federal student loan type.
Lastly, students' financial circumstance can change from year-to-year, making them eligible for grants and scholarships that they couldn't get earlier. Re-evaluating your situation regularly can reduce the need to borrow.
Paying it back
Like a mortgage or most other forms of debt, paying more than the monthly minimum on a student loan will reduce the overall interest cost. That could either be done with a larger monthly payment or multiple payments per month.
Another option is to start paying loans back while you’re still in school, even though it may not be required.
If repayment becomes a burden, don’t be shy about asking for help. Ignoring the problem is by no means an answer. Although you can't go to jail for failing to pay your loans back, your credit rating will undoubtedly suffer, wages may be garnished and any tax refund due you may be pinched by the government before you receive it.
“The sooner students pay their loans in full, the less interest they will pay,” said Collins. “Federal student loans offer generous deferment, forbearance and forgiveness programs.”
For more information, have a look here.
Another option to consider is consolidating multiple loans into a single loan, which can reduce the total monthly payout and extend the timeframe for repayment. But take into account consolidation has costs and limits flexibility in paying down your overall debt.
“If you have one loan with a much higher interest rate and are accelerating repayment of that loan, sometimes keeping the loans separate can yield more savings,” said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of strategy at Cappex.com, a college and scholarship research website.
It may also be advantageous to refinance several high-interest private loans into a single loan — particularly if a parent or someone else co-signed on the original loan.
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“If the borrower's credit score has improved, the borrower may be able to get a better interest rate,” said Kantrowitz. “If the borrower can qualify for a private consolidation loan on his or her own, without a cosigner, refinancing without a co-signer can release the cosigner from the obligation to repay the debt.”
Jeff Wuorio lives in southern Maine, where he covers personal finance and entrepreneurship. He may be reached at email@example.com and his website is at jeffwuorio.com.