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The Crushing Weight of College Debt
How can you fight back?
George Edwards

Total student loan debt just reached $1 trillion this year. That’s higher than total credit card debt. In 2010, the average college senior graduated with $25,250 in debt, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. At the same time, tuition rates keep rising: The College Board reported last year that tuition at public universities increased by more than 8% in 2010 alone.

Many students are starting to feel that college is out of reach. Yet with the unemployment rate still so high, they also fear entering the job market without a college degree.

While some students feel hopeless, some have opted to fight back. A lot of those participating in the Occupy Wall Street protests are college students. They are asking for more financial aid help through government grants and lower student loan interest rates. Some are even asking the government to wipe out student debt altogether.

Students Taking Action

Last November, a group of students from Baruch College got into an altercation with police after holding a demonstration to protest planned tuition increases in the City University of New York (CUNY) system. CUNY students were later joined by students from other universities, who banded together in a movement called Occupy Student Debt, according to The New York Times. Across the country in California, students inspired by Occupy Wall Street have protested state budget cuts to higher education, limits on student enrollment at state universities, and ever-increasing tuition.

Students also gathered on Capitol Hill in March when they found out about the possible increase in student loan interest rates due to take effect this July. The interest rates on federally subsidized student loans are set to double from 3.4% to 6.8%. President Barack Obama, looking for the youth vote, is paying attention. In late April, he campaigned at colleges in several states to let students know he’d be urging Congress to prevent the increase.

Whenever I think about the high cost of tuition and the need for student loans, fear runs through me. I am a high school senior, and, like millions of other students this fall, I will face bills that could be anywhere from several thousand dollars to upwards of $50,000 per year to attend college. My family doesn’t have that kind of money, but I want to go to college to pursue my dream of being either a journalist or a financial adviser.

Although I’m a good student, my chances of getting enough scholarship money to cover all my expenses are slim. That leaves me with one option: student loans.

Student loans aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but they can be risky. The more money you borrow, the longer it will take to pay them back, and the debt will weigh on you.

I have a friend who doesn’t plan on going to college because it is too expensive. She wanted to become a photographer and she plans to do it without college. It feels like thievery that the cost of education has increased so much that some kids don’t even want to try going to college.

Inform Yourself

So what can you do to prepare for the financial burdens of college? I interviewed Cherild Diaz, a friend of mine who is already in college, about how she’s financing her education. Diaz explains that being realistic when you choose a college is important. While it’s good to have a dream school, it’s necessary to have other options, too. Even when colleges offer a lot of scholarships or other forms of financial aid, it may not be enough to cover all your expenses. So you either have to take out big loans or go to a more affordable school.

“If you get accepted to a really good college, but scholarships and grants don’t cover the cost, you’ll have to downgrade to another college and might not get the same education as you would have at that great college,” she said.

image by Patricia Battles

Diaz opted for a state school, SUNY (State University of New York) at Stony Brook, instead of a private college. She thought it was a good tradeoff because she can always transfer into a better school if she keeps her grades up and finds some scholarships.

Even at a state school, Diaz had to take out loans, and she worries about ending up with a lot of debt. “You have to pay this money back in the future, and if you owe like $30,000...it’s just really scary. Hopefully I can get a job that’s good and I can pay them back slowly and be out of debt.”

A Change in the Law?

Diaz’s worries are shared by a lot of students. That’s why some students are advocating for passage of the Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, introduced by Congressman Hansen Clarke, a Democrat from Michigan. The Act would let borrowers (students and former students) be let off the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. Supporters of the bill, including many students, say it’s only fair at a time when college is becoming so expensive, and that it will stimulate the economy by freeing up their incomes to buy houses, start businesses, and spend money instead of being trapped in a cycle of debt.

That may help students like me in the future, but I have to make a decision now about whether I am willing to take out loans to pay for my education. I decided to talk to my college adviser, Leylah Bighach, about whether it makes sense for students to finance their education with loans if their family can’t afford to pay out of pocket.

“That’s a hard question,” she said. “[A few years ago], I would’ve had no problem encouraging a student to take out a maximum amount of money in student loans for their undergraduate degree. But because of the economy…having student loan debt nowadays is not the same as it was 7 or 8 years ago, when it was much easier to get a good-paying job.”

Dream College on Hold

Sometimes I feel as if I’ll have to sell my soul in order to go to my dream college. If I take out loans that I can’t pay back, loan officers and the school that I owe money to will stalk me. I imagine them circling me like a bunch of vultures after I graduate. (And simply not paying back your loans has consequences: It can mess up your good credit and prevent you from getting loans and credit cards in the future.) But I’ll still take the chance, because I want the college experience, and in order to get my ideal job, I have to go to college.

I’ve decided to attend New York City Tech because my dream school, the University of Maryland, is too expensive. I’m going to work hard for two years so I can get a good scholarship and transfer to UM or Hunter College.

But too many students are taking out loans without even knowing the consequences. I would recommend that students do more research on financial aid options, starting in their junior year or even earlier. They should talk to their parents about what the family can afford, and discuss the pros and cons of applying for loans with a college counselor.

If your school offers a college prep class, that’s another way to get good information about choosing a college that fits with your financial realities. The class I took covered the college application process and financial aid. We attended college fairs where representatives from both public and private colleges were available to answer questions, and we learned to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is the way you get government grants, work study, and subsidized loans.

Just because college is expensive doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t apply. If you can’t afford your dream school, then pick a cheaper runner up, like community college. In most cases, you’ll have more job options and earn a lot more money over time with a college degree than you would with just a high school diploma.

For more information about how to pay for college, visit collegeboard.org and knowhow2go.org.

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