The high school senior has a $50,000 decision to make this spring: Should she load up on student loan debt or choose to skip college?
“I believe this is an unfair choice,” the student wrote in a recent letter in The Kansas City Star. “Students should be able to get college educations without coming out the other end $50,000 in debt.”
Indeed, an affordable college education is one of the most pressing challenges facing students and their parents today. It’s also a hot-button topic on this year’s presidential campaign trail.
With student loan debt at $1.2 trillion and counting, deciding how much to borrow and how much to tap your savings can have lasting implications.
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If you’re planning on borrowing from Uncle Sam, it’s imperative to fill out the FAFSA, the U.S. Department of Education’s Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The forms have been available since Jan. 1 at fafsa.ed.gov.
Fill it out as early as possible – regardless of whether you’ve completed your federal income tax return – since studies show that early filers tend to get more money. You can always retrieve financial information after the return has been filed.
But don’t stop with FAFSA, no matter how helpless you feel about paying the college tab. Even for high school seniors, there are still ways to lower the college sticker price. Here are some strategies:
▪ If you borrow, the number to keep in mind is $8,000. That’s the maximum amount of debt per year that some experts recommend. Put it this way: $32,000 for four years is nearly the average amount of debt that students are graduating with today, according to the College Board.
▪ Reviewing your college choices? Do you go with your dream school that’s not offering a dime in scholarships and is charging close to full freight, or do you select options B or C that come with hefty packages of grants and merit-based “free” money? All things being equal, go with the college that will pay you to attend.
▪ There are still lots of scholarships up for grabs. While deadlines have long passed for many of the most lucrative awards, many scholarships offered by nonprofits, businesses and other organizations set their deadlines for March and April. A few hundred dollars here, a thousand there can cover books, the meal plan and living expenses for a semester or more.
To streamline the search process, check out free websites such as Fastweb, Edvisors and the College Board.
▪ Fast-track college. Kate Stephens, author of College, Quicker, recommends the CLEP exam (short for the College Level Examination Program) for high school students and college freshmen and sophomores. The College Board offers more than 30 exams in five subject areas, and students who pass earn college credit hours. An exam costs $80.
▪ Just say no. Parents, you have the final say in the selection decision. You can always decide a school is too expensive for your budget and ask your son or daughter to select a cheaper alternative. Maybe the solution is to take a year off after graduation to work and build up savings, or to enroll in a lower-cost community college before transferring to a four-year school.
The goal is to avoid loading up on debt.