I have transgressed from topics related to financial aid during the past few weeks, but want to return to the issue of affordability, college choice, and financial responsibility. This is now a perennial subject for the press, which is not surprising given the high and unabating cost of college, mounting student debt averages, and the state of the world economy which shows no signs of returning to good health any time soon.
The New York Times published an article by staff writer Ron Lieber on May 28, 2010, “Placing the Blame as Students Are Buried in Debt.” In this article, Mr. Lieber addresses the borrowing-to-pay-for-college dilemma by following the travails of a 26-year old woman who graduated from NYU with nearly $100,000 in college loans. When she chose NYU eight years earlier, she and her mother were determined that she should attend the “best” college, never factoring in the debt repayment burden upon graduation. I put “best” in quotes to emphasize the frequent mistake people make by equating quality and selectivity. This confusion often leads families to pick colleges based primarily on name recognition, without considering numerous other critical factors such as cost, fit and yes, academics.
Having amassed a hefty sum of private and federal loans, the young woman chronicled in Lieber’s article now finds herself in a situation where she does not earn nearly enough to meet her monthly loan payments. She, like many others, went heavily into debt to pay for college, never considering whether the nearly 6 figure investment in her education would yield a return that would make it worthwhile.
Who is to blame? The banks made loans available with little or no credit checks, the student borrowed without projecting her ability to repay the loans, and neither the university nor the banks counseled her on affordability before she amassed so much debt. Sounds vaguely like the sub-prime mortgage crisis, but with one major difference: the way the law reads today, student loans cannot be discharged in a bankruptcy. In other words, the borrower remains on the hook, even if he or she files for bankruptcy.
Curiously, NYU was one of the few universities in the country last year which actually took the initiative to contact families about debt before students enrolled. The university called 1,800 families who qualified for financial aid to ensure that they were aware of the debt they would likely have to incur. To the school’s surprise, this outreach effort had no impact on the enrollment rate. As a result, NYU ceased with such calls this year, though the university still struggles with how to best advise families on borrowing and paying for college, as well as where its counseling responsibility ends with respect to affordability.
In my view, every party here ought to be held accountable. However, the student and family will be the ones left paying back the loans, so the bulk of the responsibility lies with them. Am I implying that borrowing for college is a bad thing? Absolutely not! Financing a college education is a worthwhile investment, provided the ultimate return on that investment is positive. How does one assess that, especially before one has even decided where to enroll? One of my favorite college financial aid resources is the website http://www.mappingyourfuture.org/. This website offers a myriad of useful information, but one of its best features is the calculators which enable you to project forward and estimate future debt payments, based on expected borrowing and interest rates. One of the calculators even suggests what someone would need to earn monthly to comfortably pay back his or her student loans. Other resources such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics site (http://www.bls.gov/) provide average salaries by region based on occupation. Students who have an inkling about what they want to do when they graduate can get a sense for how much they can expect to earn. Both these resources are good starting points for understanding affordability with respect to borrowing for college.
Before you choose a college based on name recognition alone, especially if you will need to borrow, understand the potential financial responsibility after graduation. As I have recommended in prior postings, financial "safeties" or college options that are likely and affordable, are as important to put on the college list as schools deemed to be an academically secure admit.