You've heard the stories about students who borrow $40,000,
$60,000, $100,000 to get a college degree and discover upon
graduation that the monthly payments are way too high to manage.
And then there are parents who stretch to the breaking point to
send their kid to a school they can't afford.
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Unrealistic expectations, and the thrill of acceptance letters,
can impel families to make decisions that may not only hurt their
children's future but also impair their own. According to a recent
report by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 10% of new
grads have monthly loan payments that consume more than 25% of
their income, and default rates have soared since 2008. Even more
depressing, the New York Federal Reserve recently reported that
more than two million people ages 60 and older are still paying
down student debt.
You-and your kids-can avoid that fate if you steer clear of the
mistakes that trip up families when they're paying for college.
1. Don't wait until the financial aid awards arrive to
decide which schools you can afford.
Financial aid awards typically come with the acceptance letter or a
week or two later. "By then, you've fallen in love with a place,
and when you're in love, you make bad decisions," says Carol Stack,
coauthor, with Ruth Vedvik, of
The Financial Aid Handbook
(Career Press). "Parents will raid their 401(k)s or say that
they'll get a second job."
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Instead, assess your ability to pay and your student's chances
of getting financial aid while you're drawing up a college wish
list. Start by estimating your expected family contribution-which
schools use to determine financial need-with the calculator at the
Department of Education's Web site
. Then use the net-price calculator posted by each college you're
interested in to see how much need-based grant aid each college is
likely to contribute. Add those numbers; if the total doesn't cover
the total cost, you'll have to borrow, kick in more from savings or
your paycheck, or rely on merit aid.
You may still be confused about which schools offer the best
financial aid package after you get the award letters. In July, the
CFPB unveiled the
Financial Aid Shopping Sheet
, a standardized listing of tuition and other expenses, loans and
scholarships that helps families compare financial aid awards. So
far, about 200 schools have signed on to participate.
2. Don't count on a scholarship at your student's "reach"
Colleges generally offer tuition discounts, otherwise known as
merit scholarships, to applicants whose grade point average, test
scores and other credentials put them in the top 25% of applicants.
But with a reach school, your child is more likely to be in the
bottom quartile of students accepted, who typically pay full price
(minus any need-based aid). If you're counting on a discount, it's
better to adjust your sights to colleges where your student will be
within that top 25%. To find that match, compare your student's
academic record with the freshman profile on college Web sites and
talk to admissions counselors. "You want to know that the student
will be happy and not getting in over his or her head academically,
which can also mean financially," says David Hawkins, of the
National Association for College Admission Counseling.
3. Don't assume that stretching for a prestigious school
will pay off down the road.
For a tiny percentage of students, that may be true. According to
, which calculates the return on investment of more than 850
private and public colleges, students who attend top engineering,
business or science programs, or an Ivy League school, generally
reap the highest lifetime return on investment. Example: A student
who attends Harvey Mudd College, number one on Payscale's 2012
survey, pays $212,900 for a degree and earns a median total income
of $1.467 million over 30 years. At Princeton (number five on the
survey), a student pays $205,600; the median payback over 30 years
is $1.163 million. But other distinguished schools cost as much as
or more than those schools and deliver less than half the 30-year
payback, reports Payscale.com.
As for the intrinsic value of the education, "there are so many
incredible schools that are known regionally but not nationally.
You need to find a school that will be the right match for your
child," says Deborah Fox, of Fox Financial Planning Network, in San
Diego. Choosing the right major and making the most of every
opportunity have more impact on future earnings than a school's
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4. Never assume that your star student will get a full
If you match your student to a school that covets his or her exact
qualifications, and if the school offers merit scholarships (most
top-tier schools restrict their awards to need-based aid), you
could land a deal that covers half or full tuition, plus any
need-based financial aid.
Very few schools, however, offer merit scholarships that cover
room and board, which runs an average of $9,000 a year at a public
college and $10,000 at a private school, reports the College Board.
And soccer-sideline conversations aside, only a tiny percentage of
students receive athletic scholarships. The average amount, less
than $10,000, usually doesn't even cover tuition, according to Mark
. Where full rides do exist, your child will face stiff
competition. (See this
list of schools that offer full-tuition
and those that offer full rides.)
5. Don't choose a private student loan over a federal loan
because the rate is lower.
Lately, advertised interest rates on private student loans have
started as low as 2.25%. That looks good compared with the 6.8%
rate on unsubsidized Staffords, the federally backed loans
available to any student who applies, and even the 3.4% rate on
subsidized Staffords, the comparable loans for students who qualify
for financial aid.
But private student loans require underwriting and, generally, a
cosigner. Only about 20% of applicants-those with credit scores
over 770-get the lowest rate, according to Finaid.org. Some
borrowers end up with loans that have rates well into the double
And most private loans carry variable rates, not the fixed rates
of Staffords and PLUS loans (the federally backed loans for
parents). With rates currently at basement levels, the rates on
variable loans have nowhere to go but up, and they will probably do
so within two or three years, predicts Kevin Walker, of
, a student-loan comparison site.
A few lenders, including Sallie Mae and Wells Fargo, have
introduced fixed-rate private loans in the past year or two. As
with other private loans, the rate-which ranges from 5.74% to
13.75%-depends on how creditworthy the applicant is. To get a rate
at the low end of the range, you'll need a credit score of at least
725, says Walker.
There's one last, big reason to stick with federal student
loans. "Private student loans lack the repayment options and
borrower protections that come with federal student loans," says
Lauren Asher, of the Project on Student Debt, an advocacy group.
Such choices, including income-based repayment, let borrowers
adjust their payments to their financial circumstances-a lifesaver
for new grads who have yet to land a job or for workers in
low-paying fields. With private loans, says Asher, you have no such
flexibility. "The options if you hit hard times are very
6. Don't neglect to calculate how much your student can
You probably can't imagine any other circumstance in which you
would let your kid borrow thousands of dollars without a discussion
about what's involved. Yet many families do just that. For
students, "it's easy to sit down at a computer, fill out a sheet
-they're committed," says Stack, the co-author of
The Financial Aid Handbook.
Nor do families necessarily connect the loan amount with the
ability to repay it. One rule of thumb is to limit the total to
what the student can expect to earn in the first year after
graduation. You can get a bead on that amount by researching
starting salaries in your student's prospective field at
. Civil engineers, for instance, earn an average starting salary of
$56,000. A community organizer earns an average of $32,011; a line
Stack and Vedvik use a different benchmark. They recommend
limiting the debt to $32,000 (the maximum most undergraduates can
borrow in Stafford loans, plus $1,000). Borrowers with $32,000 in
loans at 6.8% will pay $368 a month over a ten-year repayment
schedule-a doable, if not insignificant, amount. (For borrowing
guidelines, see the table below.)
7. Never cosign a loan for your student to avoid borrowing
in your own name.
As cosigner, you put yourself equally on the hook if your student
defaults-and defaulting can be a matter of missing just one
payment. In that case, not only will your credit score go south
along with that of your co-borrower, but you'll also be expected to
make good on the debt. Most private loans won't be forgiven if your
student dies or becomes disabled.
You can avoid these troubles by taking out a Parent PLUS loan,
which requires a minimal credit check, carries a fixed rate of
7.9%, lets you defer repayment until six months after your student
graduates, and offers several repayment schedules that will lower
the monthly amount. It also discharges the loan if you or the
student for whom you borrowed dies or if you become permanently
This article first appeared in Kiplinger's Personal Finance
magazine. For more help with your personal finances and
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