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Paying for College

Keeping College Debt Under Control

Don't take on more loans than you can handle. Students should consider their future income when borrowing money for school.

I decided that to pay for college without borrowing money, I would have to make some serious income. So I started a janitorial service for the commercial businesses near my school. Sure enough, I got a few contracts, each of which paid an average of $800 to $2,200 per month. And I ended up graduating with less than $3,000 in debt.

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Thanks for reminding us that there are ways to pay for college without saddling yourself with loans.

I always advise students and parents to take a hard look at whether borrowing makes financial sense, based on their family situation and the student's potential future income. (See Does it Pay to Go to a Big-Name School?)

But many families apparently don't bother to make that calculation. In a survey by Sallie Mae, a whopping 70% of students and parents said that a student's postgraduate income either wasn't considered or didn't make a difference in their decision to borrow. No wonder I get so many letters from young adults who owe tens of thousands of dollars and want to know if there's any way to have those loans forgiven.

The answer is a qualified yes. Student-loan forgiveness programs do exist, but they're often very specific. For example, AmeriCorps and Teach for America both offer grants to help you pay off student loans, as does the government if you teach in a low-income school.

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Also, a new law offers grants for teachers in training plus loan forgiveness for young people who go into public-service jobs. (For more on loan forgiveness, go to finaid.org/loans).

If you're looking for guidance on how much to borrow, consider these benchmarks from a survey by student lender Nellie Mae. Borrowers who devoted less than 7% of their gross monthly income to repaying education loans generally didn't experience any difficulty making their payments. Those with an education debt-to-income ratio of 7% to 11% felt more of a burden, which increased once the ratio reached 12% to 16% or higher. The median ratio for all borrowers was 8%.

Fidelity's College Savings Indicator found that parents expect scholarships and grants to cover 20% of college costs. But that kind of "free" money pays for only about 15% of college expenses, says Sallie Mae. Federal loans account for about 40% of financial aid.

So it pays to be hard-nosed and creative. You can always decide to spend less on undergraduate education by going to a state university, for example, and saving for grad school. Or you can work your way through school.

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