Sunday, October 28, 2012

Above Average in Student Loan Debt?

The numbers are out for the class of 2011 and two-thirds of the graduating class graduated in debt. If you are an average borrower, you owe $26,600, exceeding the class of 2010 by 5%, Was it worth it? In 2011, the unemployment for college graduates was 8.8% while unemployment of high school graduates was at 19.1% so the employment number would say yes.

So you decide to go to college. How do you reduce the amount of money you will borrow, have a good time, and graduate? Here are a few ideas.

1. Graduate on time or early. An extra year of college can cost you can $50,000 or more. To calculate the cost of that extra year, add your tuition, fees and books to your potential starting salary. Say that your tuition, book, and fees are $20,000 and your starting salary is $30,000; that extra year cost you $50,000. This number could be higher or lower depending on where you attend college and your career. Just for fun, calculate your own cost of an extra year of college. If you were to graduate in 3 years, you just saved $50,000!

2. Go to a college you like with a major you like. Transferring from one school to another can cost you an extra semester or year, depending upon what credits transfer and how credits are applied. If you do transfer, check with your advisor or Registrar’s office to make sure that all credits transferred and were applied correctly.

3. Do your homework when picking a college to find out what the average student loan debt is for that institution. Some colleges work very hard to offer students work-study money and enabling students to graduate either debt free or with small student loan amounts. College of the Ozarks, Knoxville College, and Berea College are strongly committed to students graduating debt free.

4. Apply for scholarships and grants. Grants and scholarships do not have to be repaid. Great places to check are fastweb.com as well as with local organizations or employers who might grant scholarships. If you were to calculate the time you invest in researching opportunities and the funds you receive, you will be surprised at your hourly wage.

5. Take 15-18 credits per semester. To be classified as a full-time student, you must be enrolled in 12 credit-hours per semester. However at many colleges, you can take 15 or 18 credit at the same cost of taking 12 credits. That is like getting two classes a semester for FREE! You will have to work harder and you don’t want your GPA to slip, but consider maximizing your schedule so you can graduate early or take extra classes for a second major.

6. Take college level classes while in high school. In many high schools, student can have dual enrollment in both their high school and in a college. Many of these partnerships are with local community colleges. The high school pays for the class and the student can graduate with college classes. Who knows, you might be able to graduate high school as a college sophomore, completing enough college classes while in high school.

7. Talk to your admissions counselor and financial aid representative. These two contacts can be worth their weight in gold in looking for strategies for reducing college debt and increasing scholarships and grant awards. They know the inside and are usually more than willing to help you put together a plan to pay for college.

8. Take classes at your local community college. Most institutions will transfer in 62-64 credit hours if transferring from a community college; some institutions will take more. Work with the institution that you want to transfer to when you register for your community college courses. This will ensure that the courses you take at the community college will apply directly for your degree completion at the 4-year institution. I would encourage you to save the e-mail or have it in writing on what courses will transfer. Not every advisor is up to speed on transfer courses.

9. Create and live by a budget. College can be very expensive with a lot of extra-curricular activities. College should be fun, but some of that fun can be expensive. Know the opportunity cost of your fun and look for inexpensive alternatives. With your budget, you may not need all the money from your awards letter. It is okay not to borrow all the money you can while in college.

10. Start a 529 College Savings Plan. The earlier you start savings, the more time the money has to grow. Saving for College.com has details on every state’s 529 plan and college savings plan. Do your research and start saving early. An old saying states that “The best time to plant an oak tree was 20 years ago. The next best time to plant an oak tree is today.” Get started today saving for college.

There are many different routes to your college education and they don’t all have to be expensive. Take time to choose the right one for you.

What other strategies do you have for lowering your student loan debt? Leave us a comment and share your idea.