Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM
Imagine being a 24-year-old woman, graduating from college with more than $65,000 in debt. Now you're looking for an entry-level job that -- if you can find it --might pay $40,000 a year. And you're stuck with monthly payments of nearly $600 on your consolidated loans. Those payments will consume more than a quarter of your after-tax paycheck, every paycheck, for 20 years.
Susan (not her real name) doesn't have to imagine that burden. Still in school, she works two jobs after classes and on weekends. She already shares a studio apartment with a roommate. She rarely buys clothes -- but food is getting more expensive. And she can't imagine ever having money for car payments, much less retirement savings.
Was her college education worth it? It's a question many parents and children are asking themselves, as college costs keep soaring at twice the rate of inflation. In 2007-08, the average all-inclusive cost of a private college education is $32,307. At a public school, the average is $13,589. Many schools cost much, much more.
Given the tough economic times, and the relatively high interest rates on student loans, it's no wonder that families are questioning the costs. True, on average, college grads make $1 million over their lifetime -- projected if they continue working for a lifetime. But the immediate burden of student loans requires some tough thinking in the coming weeks.
College applicants are just starting to receive acceptance notices -- and the equally important letter offering financial aid. It documents the amount the family is expected to contribute (EFC) based on the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). Then it lists the forms of aid the school will offer to the student.
There will be a combination of outright grants and scholarships, work-study programs and federal student loans. But there still may be a gap. Perhaps the family can't contribute what was expected. Perhaps the school didn't offer enough financial aid. It's not just the outright cost of the school, but the gap that's important.
At www.CollegeAnswers.com, there's an online tool to analyze and compare financial aid offers, which can otherwise be a confusing process: www.collegeanswer.com/ deciding/award_comparison/ ac_index.jsp.
This site will also walk you through the procedure for understanding the award letter, and making a decision based on the comparisons.
One important tip: If you've decided to accept the aid package, let the school know immediately. Then go to the lenders they've suggested -- or any others -- to secure your Stafford loans. Many financial institutions, troubled by the credit crunch, are cutting back on the money available for federal student loans. You may have been "approved" for a loan, but it's your job to actually contact the bank, finish the paperwork and close the deal.
When the aid offer isn't enough
So what do you do if you get that letter and the financial aid offer is not enough? There are several routes to take. First, if family financial circumstances have changed, through loss of a job, for example, it's important to revise your FAFSA -- and contact the student aid office to advise them of the situation. You may qualify for more aid.
If the lack of aid is going to make attending impossible, financial aid expert Reecy Aresty of www.pay lessforcollege.com advises students to politely write a letter to the school, appealing for additional help. He suggests writing instead of calling, so it's more difficult for them to turn you down. And he advises that you ask for "help," not money. His rule: "If you don't ask, you don't get!"
Another helpful Web site is SimpleTuition.com. They'll help you work your way through alternatives to the aid you've been offered in the original letter. Among those gap-filling alternatives: private loans to students, or PLUS loans to parents, or home equity loans if you qualify. You can actually search and compare private student loan providers on their site, including rates and total repayment cost.
Rates have new impact
Starting this year, Stafford loans have a fixed rate of 6.8 percent -- for the life of the loan. PLUS loans to parents carry a fixed 8.5 percent rate. (New Stafford loans made after July 1 will carry a 6 percent rate.) It's a shame that Congress decided to "fix" the rates -- just as the Fed started cutting rates. Student loans are now relatively more expensive than in previous years -- again adding to the cost of attending college.
Is college worth it? That depends on the burden that both student and family are willing to shoulder. Certainly there may be less-expensive alternatives -- community colleges, online universities, evening programs. Only you can decide if your education is worth the ongoing financial load. But the time to think about that is before you get caught in the student loan trap. And that's The Savage Truth.
Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser. Distributed by Creators Syndicate.