Thursday, September 08, 2011

How to Make Student Debt, Smart Debt

How to Make Student Debt, Smart Debt

College classes have started which means that tuition bills are due. With college costs still rising and scholarships decreasing, an increasing amount of students and their parents will be forced to become first-time borrowers. Of incoming freshman, 53 percent reported using loans last fall, the first significant increase since 2004, according to ULCA's Higher Education Institute.

With a volatile economy and high unemployment rates, it is important that college students and parents of college students don't load themselves up with unnecessary debt and that they choose the debt wisely.

Unless students limit their debt burdens, choose fields of study that are in demand and successfully complete their degrees on time, they will find themselves in worse financial positions and unable to earn the projected income that justified taking out their loans in the first place.

Here are some tips from if you or your children intend on borrowing money to pay college tuition:

Choose a school that fits into the family budget. Families seem to be learning that picking a school is an economic decision as well as an academic one. In a survey by, 45% of students ranked “quality of major” as their top reason for choosing a school. But “scholarship or financial assistance” (43%) and “total costs” (41%) came in a close second and third -- even higher than “academic reputation” (38%).

Among students who leave school with no debt, 85% graduated from public colleges, according to a report by Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of and Selecting an affordable school doesn’t have to mean sacrificing quality. To find public and private schools that deliver both, see our Best College Values special report.

Bypass the four-year route. Starting at a community college and transferring to a four-year school can save a lot. You can also slice a year off your expenses if your child takes Advanced Placement courses in high school or qualifies for college credits through the College Level Examination Program.

In Kantrowitz’s study, half the students who graduated with no debt graduated from a community college (one-third graduated from a public four-year college). Other hallmarks of students who graduate debt-free: They tend to spend less on textbooks -- $1,000 or less per year and are more likely to live at home with their parents.

Use money you don’t have to pay back. It’s never too late to save, especially if you live in a state that gives you an income tax break for contributions to state-sponsored 529 plans. Visit to look for scholarship and grant money from schools and other sources where your student’s grade point average or other achievements would make him a standout.

If you must borrow, borrow smart. Start with government-sponsored loans, which offer flexible repayment options -- such as lower payments and deferral -- and fixed interest rates. These include Perkins loans, for eligible students, and Stafford loans, which may be subsidized if your student qualifies. Also, look into PLUS loans for parents or a home-equity line of credit. (For more information on student loans, go to With that combination, you shouldn’t need private loans, which carry a variable interest rate and generally require a co-signer.

Apparently, many students don’t realize that federal loans are the most attractive. “A majority of undergraduates who take out risky private loans could have borrowed more in safer federal loans instead,” reports the Project on Student Debt.

It’s also smart to pay all or part of any loan interest as it accrues so that it isn’t added to the balance that has to be repaid. And remember that even the best student loan can be a dual-edged sword, encouraging a student to borrow more than he should.

Know what you’re getting into. Use the Student Loan Advisor calculator at It provides an estimate, based on starting salaries of various professions, of the maximum in student loans your child should take out and how much it will cost to pay it back.

One rule of thumb is that students should try to limit their total borrowing to no more than their expected starting salary when they graduate. FinAid warns that “if you borrow more than twice your expected starting salary, you will be at high risk of default.”

And possibly the most important, choose a marketable major. Moody’s is right on the money in suggesting that students pick fields of study that are in demand. That doesn’t mean your child has to major in engineering or computer science. But if he/she is majoring in economics, it couldn’t hurt to take accounting. If he/she is studying history or government, he/she could learn a foreign language. And if he/she insists on studying something as precarious as journalism, he/she should minor or concentrate in another subject -- such as business, health or computer skills.

Investing Lesson: Borrowing at times is unpreventable but making sure that you are doing it in the smartest fashion is key!

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