Avoid College Debt Mistakes By Making Informed Decisions

This week’s Courier Herald column

Over the next few weeks, dormitories across the state will again fill up.  For most of us that are long since beyond the glory of our college days, the biggest outward sign of this will be the long awaited return of college football.  For those that are returning to college or leaving home for the first time, the ritual is not about the past, but the future.

The incoming Freshman class will be sharing the year with the run-up to a Presidential election.  The news cycle this year will be dominated by the Democratic Presidential Primary.  By the time they leave school, there will be a presumptive nominee awaiting their convention. 

The path between now and then will be littered with promises, many aimed directly at them.  One issue already under discussion is “free” college and forgiveness of student loan debt.  Students would be wise to keep such discussions in perspective, as most have not yet lived long enough to experience the difference between campaign rhetoric and political and budgetary realities. 

The causes of the student loan crisis are many and go beyond the limits of a 650-word column.  Suffice it to say that a collection of the sellers of degrees have attached themselves to a virtually unlimited pipeline of guaranteed money with quite limited responsibility for the outcome.  Shifting the payment source further from the student consumers to the taxpayer would not solve the underlying problems with the current system, but instead would likely magnify many of them.

Incoming, current, and prospective college students should instead take a long look at the cautionary stories of those with crushing debt who graduated college a decade or more ago, and make plans now to avoid many of the same mistakes.  It starts with the understanding that is the student that is now in charge of his or her own destiny. 

The value of your degree is not hidden, nor should it be based on false hopes or wishful thinking.  The value of your degree can be found by visiting your college career placement office.  You, in your first semester at school, should visit it armed with questions.

“What is the average starting salary for people with my major?”  Whether you’re borrowing money or not for college, your time is an “opportunity cost”.  You need to understand what you will be worth in the job market when you take your degree there to sell your future time and services.

“What companies are hiring people with my degree?”  You need to understand where you are likely to be working, and what that work environment will be like.  This will allow you plenty of time to research potential employers, and begin networking with those that you want to eventually hire you.

“Where are jobs like I should expect located?”  Knowing how much you’re likely to make is only part of what lifestyle you can afford with your degree.  The cost of living in Atlanta is quite different from the cost of living in Augusta or Albany.  Can you afford rent, a car payment, and your student loans in a place you want to live?  If not, you may be in the wrong major, or even the wrong school.

“What other skills and/or experience beyond my degree will make me more likely to get hired compared to my peers with a similar degree?”  The job market is competitive, and you will be trying to get noticed above even those in your classes.  Look for leadership roles in clubs, related work opportunities such as internships and co-ops, and develop any other special skills such as foreign languages or IT skills that an employer would find valuable.

College is an amazing time in a person’s life.  With some planning and self-imposed structure, it can provide the student not only the “experience” and ability to find one’s self, but ensure desired financial payoff as well.

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bethebalance

Wouldn’t hurt to have some more career/college counseling at the high school level too. Wish I had more than the 2.5 mins I got. Would be one of a number of good ways to beef up the QBE formula.