When I finished college, I was lucky to find a great job in my field in less than a year. That was the good news. The bad news was that I had a lot of college debt. I had attended a wonderful, but pricey university. Because I was in an academically challenging program, there were several semesters where I opted to live on loans rather than working. That’s something I now look back on with regret.
I can now happily say that I am debt-free (at least as far as college loans go). It took a while to make it happen, and I learned a few tough lessons along the way. If I had to go back and do things over again, there are definitely some decisions I would reconsider.
Knowing what I know now, here are 10 strategies I would like to pass on to current and prospective college students to help you avoid my mistakes:
1. Apply For Scholarships
I was fortunate enough to receive a small scholarship through a foundation that my father’s employer started. It definitely helped. I wish that I had sought out more scholarship opportunities. Unfortunately, at the time I assumed that these were limited to academic superstars and athletes.
What I know now is that there are thousands upon thousands of dollars in untapped scholarship funds. These funds are rewarded by a variety of groups and organizations. They are given to students who a pursuing specific career paths, who are able to write convincing essays, who have a history of community service – even students who are exceptionally tall. Do your research and you will likely find at least a handful of scholarships you qualify for to apply to.
Here are some sources to consider:
- Your local Chamber of Commerce
- Fraternal organizations and charities
- Your employer and your parents’ employers
- Associations and trade unions in your field of choice
- College and high school alumni associations
2. Seriously Consider Work-Study
This is where I made a big mistake. I didn’t want to work a part-time job off-campus because the standard 20 to 25 hours per week was just too much for my demanding schedule. However, if I had taken a work-study job for twelve to sixteen hours each week, I could have cut the amount of student loan funds that I allocated to personal, living expenses by about half. Considering the high amount of interest that student loan debt accrues, that can be pretty significant.
3. Trade Service for Tuition or Loan Forgiveness
In addition to offering scholarships, some companies will reward students, especially employees, with college funds if they participate in a minimal number of customer service hours. Students who are willing to really commit a significant chunk of time to serving others can participate in government programs that offer tuition payments or loan forgiveness in return for service. However, it is important to note that many of these programs require 10 to 12 months or more of service. Examples of service opportunities include: AmeriCorps, Fema Corps, Peace Corps, and Teach For America.
4. Look Into More Interest-Friendly Options
Private student loans can be expensive. This is especially true because most college students have not established the credit-worthiness or accumulated assets that they can leverage to negotiate loans at better terms. One thing to consider is asking your parents or another supportive family member to help you to finance your education by co-signing or taking out loans in their names. For example, a personal loan that your parents secure with a certificate of deposit at their hometown bank may be half the interest of an unsecured student loan from a large bank.
5. Avoid For-Profit Schools
The two best ways to deal with student debt is to simply pay less tuition and attend a school with a great post-graduate employment rate. One of the best ways to make this happen is to steer clear of for-profit schools in favor of public and private colleges and universities. You will pay significantly lower tuition rates and increase your chances of obtaining a good job post-grad. If you choose to, you will also increase the likelihood that you will be accepted into a decent graduate program.
6. Cut Back on Spending and Delay Major Purchases
Once you have finished school, it is time to sit down and create a five-year financial plan. If you have a lot of debt coming out of school, this plan should focus on reducing spending and being conservative when it comes to taking on new debt.
It is also important to prioritize ensuring that your student loan payments are made without fail. This way, if there is ever a significant financial emergency in the future, you are in a better position to renegotiate terms. For some graduates, this may mean finding alternative ways to deal with emergency expenses. According to First Choice Title Pawn, there are easy ways to get quick cash in the case of emergencies, while still keeping up with your other financial obligations.
7. Consider Community Colleges and Public Universities
If you are unsure about your major or the career you want to pursue, are you sure you want to go into thousands of dollars in debt to attend a private university? Many students opt to do this and end up owing banks and the federal government lots of money.
If you do have your heart set on attending a private college or your future goals require that you attend a four-year college, take a look at commuter schools and community colleges anyway. You may be able to earn credits during summer sessions by taking a couple of classes at the local community college that you can apply towards your degree.
8. Start Paying Down The Debt Immediately
Many students don’t realize this, but you don’t have to wait until graduation to begin making payments. Even small payments made while you are still in school can help you to reduce your overall debt. This is good information to pass onto your parents as well, if they have committed to helping you pay down your debt.
9. Pay More Than The Minimum Payment Each Month
If it helps, think of your student loan payments like you would a mortgage payment. If you only pay the minimum, the terms of your loan could stretch for decades. However, if you double your payments, or make a second payment each month, you can significantly reduce the length of your loan. Just keep in mind that all loans vary, and ask your lender for information on their specific policies.
10. Consider Career Paths That Earn Loan Forgiveness
If you are interested in a career that serves others, you may be qualified for full or partial student loan forgiveness. Students entering fields such as nursing, social work, and public education can often have their debt reduced or even eliminated altogether. Just be aware that there are restrictions. For example, a teacher willing to work for five years in the public school system is more likely to qualify than a teacher who goes to work for an elite private school.
Student loan debt is a real problem. It significantly impacts the quality of life of many college graduates, and has also become a matter of political concern. By using the tips outlined above, you may be able to reduce or even avoid taking on too much crushing debt.