4 ways parents (and their students) can avoid the college debt trap

Excerpt from Beth Kobliner's story on the PBS News Hour.

Here are four tips to help you and your kid sort through the 7,000 or so U.S. colleges and universities and get the biggest bang for your higher ed buck.

1. Money is a Factor: Level with your kid about how much you can spend and warn her against taking on too much debt. 
  • Make sure any loans are low-interest federal ones (not private). Federal student loans are at a low 5.05 percent interest rate and cap out at $31,000 for five years of college—plus, your kid can choose from a variety of repayment plans after she graduates. 
  • Avoid borrowing on your child’s behalf. The number of parents taking out pricier Parent PLUS loans for their children’s college costs is soaring. Some are even borrowing against their retirement plans. Don’t.
2. The sticker price is not the final price: The truth is, most students receive financial aid to offset the advertised cost of college. (And only about 10 percent of private college students pay full price.) Still, you need to try to get the best estimate of what your family will pay before you tell your kid he can go. To get a rough idea of what you’ll actually pay at a given school, start with the net price calculators from each institution you have in mind.

3. The answer might be closer than you think: Research what your local and state colleges have to offer. Several states, such as Tennessee, Oregon, and Minnesota, offer free community college programs—and New York guarantees certain in-staters free attendance at four-year state schools, too. Another plus: If your kid can commute to campus from home, you can save a bundle.

4. Make a post-graduation plan for paying down debt: One great rule of thumb from Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Savingforcollege.com: Don’t borrow more than your expected first-year salary out of school. To make sure your kid is actually drawing a salary after graduation, she should take the advice of Amanda Sale, an admissions officer at the University of Georgia.

“Get connected with the career center early on,” Sale told me. “Don’t wait until you’re a senior, because the resources are fantastic.” Among them, guidance on how to write a resume and interview effectively, and connections to jobs or internships. Because the best way to pay for college is to turn that pricey degree into a healthy paycheck.

Read the entire article by Beth Kobliner, one of the nation’s leading authorities on personal finance for young people