6 Questions to ask before saying “I Do!” to college loans

By Kim Hall | Finances & Careers

Aug 04

6 Questions to ask before saying I Do to college loansHow is it possible you are thinking about and discussing college preparation, possible school choices, and potential education costs with your children?

Didn’t you just graduate?

It may seem like just yesterday you were considering those decisions for yourself, but times have changed, and so have the stakes:

College costs have risen dramatically—1,220% in the last thirty-five years.

Only a little over half of first-time, full-time students—59%—graduate with a bachelor’s degree, and they do so within six years, not four.

Many graduates struggle with loan payback because the relationship to the earning power of the degree or finding a job wasn’t considered.

Large amounts of education debt are keeping first time house buyers from stepping into home ownership.

About a third of millenials regret their decision to go to college.

Given this bracing splash of information, don’t launch that “Where do I sign?” ceremony just yet.

Instead, here are 6 questions to ask before you say “I Do!” to college loans.

A disclaimer: My husband and I believe children need to be financially responsible for a major portion, if not all, of their education, as there is a lot to be said for having a stake in the game. We also believe there are ways other than college to accomplish learning and skill-building, especially since debt-freedom helps provide a firm foundation upon which to build their lives. Finally, we believe a typical higher education doesn’t automatically provide a good value, and/or may not be the best path for a student. That’s why asking quality questions and doing your due diligence is so important.

1.  Who is ultimately paying for college?

Student? Parent? Are you sharing the responsibility? Whose name will actually be on the dotted line?  Instead of being the borrower, you can be the lender to your children, but be aware of the potential it has to cause some serious relationship and monetary problems. If your children are young and you’re thinking ahead, kudos! Dustin shares about investing—or not—for college here.

2.  What is the total amount of the school loan?

Equally important, what will the payments be? To get an idea, use an online loan calculator. If your debt load is average (2013), you’ll owe about $35,000 beginning six months after you graduate or quit school.

That translates roughly to between $400-$500 a month for ten years, based on interest rates that range from 6.9% to over 11%. Your actual total payback would average around $48,000 to $60,000. You wouldn’t finance a $35,000 car for ten years. Why would you consider financing your education for that long? Think about how, where, and even if this expense will fit into your overall budget.

3.  Where will you choose to go to college?

With over 7,000 establishments of higher education in the U.S., you have a veritable cornucopia of choice. Each has their benefits, depending on your needs and wants, and all of that comes at a cost. Many students spend their first two years at a community college because of the proximity to home and lower tuition, then spend their last two years at a larger institution.

You can do what my sister, the math teacher, did for her daughter when she was considering different schools. Take the total cost, fees and all, for the year, and divide that by the days in the academic calendar, which is usually around 150-160 days. That figure is the cost of the education per day. I think you and your student will find this a real eye-opener for helping to determine value, just as my niece did.

4.  When is the money needed?

Usually the first term’s full payment is due just prior to the start of the school year. But, step back for a moment and think about this: Does college need to start right after high school? Your student may opt for deferred admission, sometimes called a Gap Year. It allows time to work, save, travel, volunteer, and especially, mature.

Your student can be a Feb, a nickname given to students who begin in the spring term. When Middlebury College in Vermont studied freshman who started in the fall vs the spring they discovered, “The Febs not only had higher GPAs, but the positive effects lasted all four years.”

5.  Why are you going to college?

This is the biggest question of all, because you are paying a very high premium for those formative years: money out, typically no real-world work experience in. The hope, of course, is that the value of the degree will accrue as the years pass.

Here are what I consider bad reasons to say “I do!” to loans and college: your family expects you to go, your classmates are all going, your teachers tell you to, the world shouts you’ll be a failure without a degree, and you don’t have any idea what you want to do with your life.

If you’re not sure where else you’d go or what you’d do instead, consider these interesting eleven alternatives, or read Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree. To help get to the bottom of your Why, go through this exercise here.

 6.  How will you pay for the education?

Your choices are many: private or public lenders, scholarships, grants, and your own savings. Here’s a thought: What if it were possible to pay as you go, and graduate debt free? This young man explains how he did, and how you can too, via his book: Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents. It’s important that your financial plans not be dominated by education financing at the expense of other goals, to quote one of the book’s reviewers.

Going to college is taking a leap of faith that the time and money you spend will result in greater future personal, financial, and career success.  Asking these 6 questions before you say “I Do!” to college loans will help you make the right decision, at the right time, in the right place, and for the right reasons for your family.

Question: What have you used to help make decisions about paying for college?

Photo credit: Ano Lobb

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