Updated January 2021
The student loan debt crisis continues to grow at an astronomical rate. In the last decade, student loan debt has ballooned by 102%. The nearly $1.7 trillion student loan debt crisis has surpassed auto loans and credit card debt and is second to only mortgage debt in the consumer loan category.
With planning and intentionality, you can avoid joining the $1.7 trillion student loan debt crisis. On average, the Class of 2019 graduated college with $28,950 in student loan debt. Everyone says, “just take out student loans” but then no one wants to talk about how to pay back tens of thousands of dollars. Not everyone gets a high paying job after graduation, and not every student graduates. If you fail to finish, you still have to pay those student loans back.
Can you get a college education without taking on massive debt and adding to the student loan debt crisis? Making reponsbile choices, understanding the loan process and creating a plan can help you reduce your future student loan burden.
Don’t Believe the Hype
Don’t believe the hype that says the only way to go to college is through debilitating student loan debt. That is a lie. It is possible to graduate in four-years, avoid or minimize student loan debt, complete multiple internships and have employers looking to recruit you after you graduate.
Families without college savings, or the ability to pay cash find themselves pressured to sign on the dotted line for student loans. They fall prey to the mass marketing that oversimplifies the impact of debt while only promoting the promise of a degree. A rule of thumb I often hear and agree with, your total student loan debt shouldn’t exceed your expected first-year earnings. If your projected income is $45,000 per year, your total student loan debt should not exceed that amount.
Day after day you hear stories about millennials having buyer’s remorse over student loans. Graduates wishing they’d gone to a cheaper school, lived at home or saved money before going to college. They believed the hype that big loans were the only option and have since learned it wasn’t necessarily true.
So, the first thing you should do is separate yourself from the belief that big loans are the only option on the table. When you remove that option from the table, it will force you to evaluate your choices more carefully as well as be creative in paying for college.
Pick a College You Can Actually Afford
Keep it simple. When shopping for a college, just like a picking car or house you need to have a realistic budget of what you can afford. Parents and students need to have the tough conversation before the search process begins. The conversations around the college budget should start in high school.
In 2021, the average private college tuition is around $35,087 with total costs around $53,000. In-state public school tuition averages $9,687. Knowing the numbers and understanding the costs of college are essential to evaluating offers.
For some students, unfortunately there is no college savings, there is no 529 plan, there is nothing to help. For others, learning to live within and make choices within the limits of any savings is a must. The scholarship search is intense and lengthy to score the type of money most students need. Many colleges also offer merit-based scholarships (scholarships based academic performance) to attract and help applicants.
The dream school, with the dream name, in the dream location might not be in the budget. You might be left with the option of taking on student loans, or searching for an alternative and affordable school that still checks most of your boxes.
Every college financial aid or admissions website offers a tool called the net price calculator. It is a feature that allows you to input financial information and receive an estimate of what your financial aid package might look like, therefore giving you an estimated net price.
The most affordable school is the one you can pay for without deep studen loan debt.
Expand Your Search
Expand your search to include colleges you’ve probably never heard of. There are 4,000 colleges across the country. Start in your own backyard with public and private institutions within driving distance. Look beyond the big brand name.
As you continue through the search process you can narrow your focus from just cost to other factors. Important considerations include academic major, school size, class size, location, unique programs, scholarships and overall fit to name a few.
When attending college fairs, virtual or in-person, take the time to explore schools you haven’t heard of. Just as importantly, don’t eliminate a school you grew up near just because “everyone goes there” or “it’s not far enough away”. You could be overlooking the right fit school that comes in at the right price.
I graduated from two public colleges and I have also worked in college admissions at five private colleges. I’ve placed over 400 interns and newly hired grads with some of the biggest companies in the world. Success is based on you and your ability and your network, not just the name on your diploma.
Take Dual Enrollment Classes in High School
There has been a rapid increase in dual enrollment programs. Dual enrollment programs allow high school students to take college courses before they graduate. Students may complete a few courses or even graduate high school with an Associate’s degree from the participating college. The result could be major savings in college tuition.
In addition to cost savings, you also enter college with more confidence about your ability to do the work. Many colleges will still consider you an entering freshman making you eligible for freshman merit scholarship money. If your school offers this option, jump on it!
Consider a Gap Year to Save Money
The number of students taking a gap year is also on the rise, the most famous example probably being Malia Obama delaying entry into Harvard for a year. Well, at the moment, COVID-19 has shut down travel plans, however, your gap year doesn’t have to include travel.
My version of a gap year on a budget is about doing a few internships and working full-time or part-time to save money. Internships can also help you develop a true understanding of what career you want to follow. Set a goal to save enough money to pay for at least your first year in cash. Experiment with a low-cost start up business idea and learn new skills like computer coding, sales, or graphic design.
Taking time off can also prevent changing majors multiple times (most students change majors three times before graduation). A year of working can increase focus as you learn more about yourself, your interests and what excites you. Student loans are bad enough, but don’t take on student loans to pursue a career you don’t want.
In a gap year, you may also start working full-time for an employer who can help you pay for school. Employers like Wegmans, Fed Ex, Starbucks, Wal-Mart and others offer scholarships to employees. When you look for a full or part-time job, take this factor into account and it could mean thousands of scholarship dollars to help pay for school.
Attending Community College is Perfectly Fine
My personal path involved attending a community college and earning an Associate’s degree before transferring to the State University of New York at Oswego. Most people actually don’t even know I went to a community college. It’s where and how you finish that matters, not where you start.
Was I disappointed that I didn’t go away like many of my friend’s freshman year? Ah, yes, but I eventually got over it with time. My parents paying cash for those first two years at community college was something I couldn’t fully appreciate then, but I do now.
With careful planning and an understanding of the transfer process, you can still graduate in four-years. I completed my Bachelor’s degree on time, with a transfer scholarship with no academic credit issues. It’s a process that you have to stay on top of from day one.
I didn’t finish college debt free, but who knows how bad it would have been if I took on loans for my first two years. I ended up with three degrees and $25,000 in student loan debt, most of that coming in graduate school. Student loans don’t have to be the kiss of death, but understand how much you are taking on, and have a plan to pay it back.
Living at home and attending a public university is one of the most affordable paths to a degree. Living at home after you earn your degree and attacking your student loan debt is also potentially life changing situation for you.
When I went to SUNY Oswego, tuition was $3,400 and the total cost of attendance was about $10,000. SUNY tuition in 2021 is only $6,470 which is still one of the best buys in public college education. All New York (SUNY) college tuition is the same price. For a student who lives at home and is willing to commute (even for a 1 or 2 years) attending a public university is one of the most affordable paths to a degree.
Remember Why You Are Going to College
I am a first generation college student. My father worked in facilities for Eastman Kodak for 20+ years and my mom had an in-home daycare. Yes, college was fun. I met my best friend and made life long connections. I was personally and academically challenged, tried new things and learned new things.
At the end of the day, I went to college to create a future that would allow me to have a career. In the midst of my college fun, I did eight internships which I detail in my book, The Internship Manual and worked a bunch of part-time jobs so that I could have enough experience for my resume.
How badly do you want to go to college and avoid the student loan debt trap? Get a job, sell stuff on Ebay, drive Uber and save money. Most people can find extra money in their budget when they stop and think critically about needs versus want. If college is a need, get rid of the unnecessary wants.
Doing these things won’t bring a $54,000 per year school within reach. It will, however, make a $6,500 public school while living at home a realistic opportunity. One you might be able to do in cash or with the federal loan program.
Don’t lose site of the goal. Graduate college and start your career. Attending college is not a promise, but a privilege. Make the wise financial and academic decisions today that will give you more options in your future.