By Michelle Singletary
There's been quite a bit of news lately about how, as the credit crisis continues, it may be more difficult for some families to get student loans.
I'll be honest. I think if college students and their parents have a harder time getting loans, that's a good thing. Perhaps now more people will stop and consider the long-term implications of taking on so much of this so-called "good" debt to fund a college education.
The College Board likes to highlight in its annual survey of college costs that over a working lifetime, a college-educated person can earn considerably more than someone with just a high school diploma.
But many of those college grads are now using an increasingly higher percentage of their incomes to pay down student loan debts – for at least a decade after they've left school. Add at least another decade if the student attends a pricey, private college.
As the college financial aid award letters arrive and you sit down with your child, consider the dilemmas faced by the following people who wrote to me.
South Carolina resident Brenda Nixon is having trouble paying back about $58,000 in undergraduate and graduate student loans.
"Are there any programs that you know of to assist borrowers with student loans?" she asked. "My forbearances and deferments have all been exhausted."
As graduation season approaches, I'll get more questions like this one. That's when it hits people that they are struggling to pay back the thousands of dollars they borrowed. Many can't even handle the pint-size loan payments made possible by extending the loans out for as much as 30 years.
While there are some loan forgiveness programs, they're generally available only for people such as teachers or doctors who are willing to work in underserved and low-income areas.
If you're a federal government employee, the Federal Student Loan Repayment Program allows agencies to make payments on certain workers' federally backed loans, up to $10,000 a year for a total maximum benefit of $60,000. To find out more about this program, go to www.opm.gov/oca/pay/studentloan
Of course there are catches to getting the cash. First, the agency has to set up the program. The federal employee has to sign a service agreement to stay with the agency for at least three years, and the loan repayment is taxable income.
If you volunteer for certain programs, a portion of your debt may be forgiven. For example, AmeriCorps volunteers may be eligible to receive up to $4,725 in exchange for a year of service through its Segal AmeriCorps Education Award.
To find a list of loan forgiveness programs, check out FinAid's Web site at www.finaid.org/loans/forgiveness.phtml
One Florida mother wanted to know how to help her 21-year-old son who has $45,000 in private and federally backed student loan debt. The payments on the loans total about $400 a month. And he's still attending school although he's not taking on any additional debt.
"Can he consolidate his loans and make the payments much lower so he can get his own place?" the mom asked. "He is willing to pay back the loan but cannot afford $400 and an apartment."
For all you parents poised to tell your kid to go to whichever college he or she wants regardless of ability to pay without large loans, consider the consequences of that choice.
A Falls Church, Va., father, who participated in a recent online chat, is trying to get his kid to be reasonable. He wrote: "Help! I'm a divorced father. My daughter could go to college for free the next four years in Virginia. She wants to attend school in New York where she will have huge debt upon graduation. She is a smart kid but doesn't understand debt."
Dad, do what my grandmother did when I won a four-year scholarship to the University of Maryland. I too desperately wanted to attend school out of state. To which my grandmother said: "No ma'am. You're going where you won't end up in debt."
I went to Maryland. To this day I'm grateful for my grandmother's tough stance. Not having student loan debt helped put me in the financial position to buy my first home about two years after graduating.
In the case of the Florida mother, her son could stretch his loans out to get an even lower monthly payment, but that means more interest charges.
He shouldn't do it. Instead, I would suggest he keep living with his mama and pay off that $45,000 before moving out.
"Getting a college degree was always my dream, but if I had to do it over again, I would have probably foregone graduate school," Nixon said. "I'm not sure it was really worth it considering the cost."
Before you sign for those student loans, think about Nixon's regret as she reflected on her heavy borrowing for both of her degrees.
"Going into a lot of debt for my education seems crazy to me now," she said. "Even though some financial counselors say education debt is good debt, it's not good to me."