The Student News Site of University of Chicago Laboratory High School

Risa Cohen

Crushing Cost of College

May 14, 2019

Students seeking financial aid for college must begin to consider the long-term costs to credit and other opportunities. The burden is so damaging that presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has now called for student debt relief, hoping it will boost her campaign.

Undergraduate debt affects students long-term

Saving for retirement. Buying a car. Having children.

As high school students contemplate taking out loans to pay for the ever-increasing cost of attending college, they may not consider these potential major facets of their future lives, but life milestones can be directly impacted by the debt students incur throughout their higher education.

High school students think about prestige or the ideal of college life. Few consider cost a priority, and many take out loans. Yet, the decision to take out loans is one of immense importance, as it has significant long-term impacts.

According to college counselor Patty Kovacs, most statistics regarding student loan debt are of aggregate debt. This means that the majority of those dollars are from graduate school loans.

Students still often take out hefty loans for their undergraduate education, but colleges try to keep them from taking on too much debt.

“For undergraduate student loan debt, most colleges are going to cap that,” she said.

While colleges may stop students from taking out colossal loans, they put no such restrictions on parents. Any parent with a good credit record, regardless of financial profile, could qualify for a government loan to aid in paying their child’s tuition. The question then, is whether or not families are willing to go into debt to pay for their child’s college education.

Students must consider how much debt responsibility they will take and how much will fall to their parents, and in addition to that, families should consider long-term financial aid plans, according to Ms. Kovacs.

“You might say, ‘I want to go to college, and I want to be a doctor, and I want to open a practice,’” she said. “How long do families want to be contributing to the overall educational costs? Does it end totally at the bachelor’s degree, or can we say, ‘We’ve put this money aside and we’ll extend it if you look at financial options that are different.’”

While students should be mindful of the long-term impact of their student debt, according to Ms. Kovacs, undergraduate student loans shouldn’t affect a student’s ability to attend graduate school as students will not have to begin payments until after graduate school.

“I don’t think it affects the ability to go to graduate school,” she said. “It kicks that undergraduate loan repayment off until you’re finished with that grad school. And then it gets folded into the aggregate.”

Undergraduate debt may not affect a student’s ability to attend graduate school, but it does affect a student’s ability to take out loans for other major components of adult life.

“In many ways that’s like buying a car. If you haven’t budgeted for that, then it can come as a shock,” Ms. Kovacs said. “It does delay in some cases, students buying a home, getting married, those kinds of things.”

From Oct. 9 to Oct. 24, 2018, 7,095 adults with student loan debt from all 50 U.S. states were surveyed by Student Debt Crisis, a non-profit organization dedicated to student debt reform. More than half — 56% of those surveyed — said their student debt prevented them from buying a home, and 19% delayed getting married.

While some may look toward loan forgiveness to tackle debt, qualifications are strict. According to the Department of Education, to qualify for loan forgiveness, one must work at a non-profit organization for 10 years, work for the federal, state or local government, and make 120 monthly payments. In 2017, 28,000 people applied for loan forgiveness, and only 96 were approved according to the New York Times.

As students consider financial aid, it is essential that they consider the impact and understand what their future will look like financially.

Ms. Kovacs said, “I think one of the best things to do is for parents and students to have an honest and open conversation early in high school, like sophomore year — what we’re really talking about in terms of college affordability.”

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    Five things you need to know about financial aid

    In 2019, student loan debt in the United States reached a whopping total of $1.5 trillion, with an average of $29,000 owed per student. It takes student debt holders an average of 19.7 years to pay off their debt, with an average monthly payment of $393 per month, according to the New York Times. While politicians like U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren have proposed plans to help alleviate student debt burdens and perhaps even forgive up to $50,000 in debt for families making under $100,000 a year, the student loan situation shows no sign of going away any time soon. Here are some answers to questions you might have about student debt and loans.


    What’s the difference between a grant, a scholarship and a loan?
    Grants and scholarships are considered “free money;” they don’t need to get paid back. Grants tend to be need-based and provided by the government. The largest source of grants in the United States is the Federal Pell Grant, which awards a maximum of just over $6,000 to each qualifying student each year. Scholarships can be need-based or merit-based, with anything from high grades and scores to a particular talent qualifying a student. A loan is money that needs to be paid back. The most common federal loans are Stafford Loans and Perkins Loans, which are low-interest. Students can also choose to borrow from private loan companies like Navient or Sallie Mae, which often have higher interest rates.


    How much debt is too much debt?
    According to college counselor Melissa Warehall, the college counselors at U-High stress borrowing within a reasonable amount.

    “My opinion is that a reasonable amount is in between $20,000 and $25,000 over four years, not per year,” Ms. Warehall said. “Right now, the way that both the Stafford subsidized and unsubsidized loans work, if you’re awarded both a subsidized and unsubsidized loan, that’s about $5,500 a year. So that works out to be about $22,000 over four years. Once your loan debt gets above around $25,000, it becomes a burden.”


    What could happen if you borrow too much?
    Ms. Warehall said that borrowing an unreasonable amount can create a years-long burden.

    “There are two ways it could come into play. One, when you’re making your first career choice out of college, there might be a great opportunity where you want to work for an NGO or a not-for-profit. But if you need to make a $400-500 loan payment each month, that might affect the type of position you are able to take when you first graduate from college,” Ms. Warehall said. “The other concern is that the way the government has structured bankruptcy laws, loans can never be forgiven. So even if you declare bankruptcy, your loan debt gets deferred, but not discharged.”


    What are some benefits to borrowing?
    “The upside to taking out student loans and borrowing during the time you’re in college is you start having a credit record,” Ms. Warehall said. “If you start paying those loan payments back as you should, you end up having a really nice credit score to start out with. You can’t get a credit score until you start accruing credit, so it’s a safe way to start building credit, as long as it’s a reasonable amount of debt.”


    What are some resources I can look at to start?
    The Federal Student Aid website is home to endless information about financing a college education. The website’s FAFSA4Caster can help estimate eligibility for federal aid with a few bits of information. To search for scholarship opportunities, the Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop section features over 7,000 scholarships and other financial aid opportunities.

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