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Avoiding The Pitfalls Of Student Loan Debt

By Alicia Wallace, Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 04--When University of Colorado student Christine Jackson is peppered with questions by relatives and other older adults about her schooling, the 19-year-old hears some very similar queries:

"They ask me what my major is, how I'm doing in school, and (they ask), 'Are you in a lot of debt?'" said Jackson, a sophomore psychology major.

The topics of student loan debt and delinquency have emerged as hot-button issues in recent years, with some legislators and economists claiming the situation is an "economic crisis."

American's cumulative student loan obligations have climbed to record levels -- this year surpassing the $1.2 trillion mark.

President Barack Obama in June signed an executive order to expand eligibility for the Pay As You Earn program, an initiative that adjusts required monthly payments based on income and allows for debt forgiveness after 20 years.

Amidst these efforts, students such as Jackson are navigating a variety of different avenues to minimize their current and future debt burdens.

Jackson said she was "lucky" to receive a scholarship, the President James H. Baker Award as part of CU-Boulder's Esteemed Scholars Program. The award covers a chunk of her tuition each year, but Jackson took out loans to pay for on-campus housing and related expenses during her first year of school.

"It's not too bad," she said. "A few thousand, at least."

Jackson's loan balance after the first year totaled about $5,000, an amount she hopes to whittle down while in school.

In addition to a job at The Connection gaming center in the University Memorial Center, Jackson plans to pick up another job while in school. When she has to live off-campus, she'll likely live with her parents in Boulder to save some money on rent.

"I'm going to start (paying down the student loans) this year," she said. "I want to pay about $500 to $1,000 each semester."

Nearly 40 percent of U.S. households headed by an adult under the age of 40 have some amount of student debt, according to a report released by the Pew Research Center in May. It's the highest share on record, senior economist Richard Fry noted in the report.

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The median student obligation for these households is $13,000, according to the research.

Those student debtors typically carry a heavier overall debt load, contributing to a lower net worth than those without student loan debt, according to the report.

"It may be the case that the burden of student debt makes it more difficult for young adults to gain financial traction in other areas of their lives," Fry wrote. "It may also be the case that with the rising share of young adults enrolling in college these days, economic gaps between those who borrow for college and those who do not may be widening."

Having money sense

In recent years, CU officials have put a greater emphasis on financial literacy during orientation sessions, said Ofelia Morales, associate director of client services for CU's Office of Financial Aid.

CU also launched Money Sense (bursarweb.colorado.edu), a website designed to provide resources aimed at helping students understand how the choices they make in college will affect them in the future.

Morales' recommendations to students include becoming well acquainted with Money Sense and taking other measures such as:

Borrowing only what one needs.

Know the balances of loans in each year.

Make monthly payments on those balances.

Apply for scholarships.

Evaluate federal loan options first before applying for private loans.

Schedule an appointment with the Office of Financial Aid.

"I do feel like students are aware that it's a loan," Morales said. "I do still think there's more work to be done in keeping them aware through their whole college career."

She added that some hiccups in those efforts could occur as the financial aid process becomes easier and applications and elections can be made with a click of a button.

"I think because it's so easy, the awareness is kind of lost," she said. "We are definitely working harder as a campus, making sure students have all the information."

As the cost of education rises, it becomes even more paramount for students to have awareness about student loans so that they are not deterred from attending school or are negatively affected financially, she said.

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"It's still a good investment in a person," she said. "With any type of borrowing, it's just about doing it responsibly."

Scarlett Kass, a 19-year-old from South Carolina, tested the waters as to whether she could come to CU by taking a three-credit public speaking course during the summer.

The complicating factor: The class was $1,200 per credit.

"I love Colorado, it's a beautiful state," she said. "I would stay here, but it's too expensive."

Without a scholarship, Kass said it would be in her best financial interests to stay in South Carolina and attend the University of South Carolina.

Emilie Thurston, 22, a junior psychology major who transferred to CU from a community college in Wisconsin, sat in the Regent Administrative building last week perusing admission and financial aid documents.

"They wanted to give a big student loan to my parents," she said, adding that she did not want her parents to shoulder the burden because they are near retirement. "It was completely unreasonable for my family. I'm going to do a private student loan."

Thurston is examining her options and still in the process of calculating what the total obligation would be, especially as she also wants to pursue graduate school.

While in school at Wisconsin, she worked full-time to ease the pain of the costs.

"Just to keep up," she said. "But that completely hits your grades. There's no way you have any time to study."

Thurston said concerns about student loan debt cross her mind "every day," but she believes the education will outweigh the pocketbook pain.

A long-term obligation

CU alumnus Chris Conrey said he wishes more education was put on the potential fallout from student loans when he attended the university from 1999 to 2003.

"I was looking at the now and not looking at what it was going to mean for me in the future," he said.

When Conrey graduated in 2003, the computer science major did so with close to $95,000 in loan debt. About 65 percent of the outstanding balance consisted of private loans as he maxed out the coverage of federal Direct Loans.

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"Honestly, I didn't make any attempt (to pay down the loans while in school), even though I worked multiple jobs," said Conrey, 34. "Looking back now, that was not the brightest of moves."

While Conrey was in school, the tech boom was in full force. Students were landing $60,000-to-$70,000-a-year jobs right out of college, he said.

"So I figured, 'Oh, I'll be fine,'" he said. "Obviously, then the economy imploded."

Fresh out of school, Conrey got a job selling cars and then decided to capitalize on his computer science background and start a tech company in California.

Paying more than $750 per month in education loan repayments, however, threw an additional curve ball in the already uncertain realm of running a business -- especially one in Silicon Valley, he said.

The student loan obligations factored into Conrey's decision to move back to Colorado and find stable employment. He now works at Applied Trust, a data security firm headquartered in downtown Boulder.

Short of winning the lottery, Conrey knows that he's facing a hefty loan payment for the foreseeable future. He estimates that he's paid about 45 percent of his total obligations.

"Slowly but surely, I'm making the payments," he said.

His advice to prospective and current college students includes recommending they not accep the maximum financial aid package given, instead taking out loans for only what is needed. He added that some of his loan money went to unnecessary purchases such as a Playstation.

New courses of action

The cost of education and the price of student loan debt are causing a sea change in how a college degree is obtained, said Scott Stillman, president of MassMutual Colorado, a provider of financial services and insurance.

"What used to be common practice doesn't work today, and it requires people to take different strategies," he said. "The typical four-year college path may not be practical anymore."

Much like preventative health care, proactive efforts should be made to reduce or eliminate debt, he said.

That could include putting a longer timeline on attending school and finding steady employment to pay off the costs along the way, he added.

Stillman said other basic steps could include:

Creating a budget and tracking expenses daily

Making sacrifices and passing on expenditures such as a ski weekend or car

Avoiding creating a "double debt" situation by applying for and using credit cards

Analyzing all loan and credit card interest rates

Enlisting the services of a financial planner

Obtaining disability income insurance to ease the financial pitfalls from being injured

"There is no magic wand, that's part of the problem," Stillman said. "It doesn't go away on its own; the key is to limit it and reduce it as quickly as possible."

Contact Camera Business Writer Alicia Wallace at 303-473-1332 or [email protected].

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(c)2014 the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.)

Visit the Daily Camera (Boulder, Colo.) at www.dailycamera.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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