Student Loans Are Not the End-All Be-All Solution to Paying for College

 

There are many options available to help students cover the cost of college. The most common are scholarships, grants, and student loans. What many students don’t realize is that there are alternative ways to help offset the cost of college. This includes, but is not limited to, becoming a residential advisor for on-campus housing, being a part of the university’s honors program, getting an internship and the list goes on. Now, more than ever is a critical time to minimize student loan borrowing so you can graduate debt-free and jump-start your post-grad journey on your terms.


Getting started with financial aid

Every year, students fill out the FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which uses three factors to determine if you’re eligible for federal and/or state student aid.

The three factors include:

  • Enrollment Status
  • Cost of Attendance
  • Expected Family Contribution

Using those three factors, a financial aid package is prepared which may include grants, loans, or both. In my case, I was offered both.

Part of my initial problem was that the grants only covered about a third of my costs and I thought I had no other choice but to accept student loans. Furthermore, I naively accepted additional loans, exceeding my college costs, so that I could have extra cash throughout the school year. Most of that money would be spent on going out and useless items I didn’t absolutely need. This was a reoccurring theme in the first two years of college.

During this time, it was normal for me to accept the loans in their entirety, not even thinking twice that I might’ve been over-borrowing. As I progressed into the second half of my undergraduate program, I began to feel uneasy about the loan balance I was accumulating and started questioning if obtaining my degree was worth the debt.

It wasn’t until after college that I determined that I had over-borrowed about $8,000, in my first two years of college. Although this has been my biggest money mistake, I know many other students who have gone through the same experience and are literally paying the price for it now. To help navigate through this common problem, I’ve listed a few tips to help mitigate over-borrowing and hopefully help incoming or current students better examine their financial situation.


Only borrow what you need

When you receive your financial aid package, figure out whether or not the grants will cover all of your costs. If they do, don’t accept any of the student loans. If they don’t and you have no other choice but student loans, then go with the subsidized loan options. These loans don’t generate interest while in you’re a school or during your grace period after you graduate.

If you have to utilize any unsubsidized loans, understand that these loans generate interest during the entire time you’re in school and all that interest will be capitalized to the principal after your grace period ends. In this case, the best option might be to make payments towards the interest while you’re in school to lower the amount that’ll be capitalized when you get through your grace period.


Programs that help lower your college costs

If you held a high-grade point average (> or =3.7)in high school and scored high on the SAT’s, then it might make sense to apply to the honors program at your prospective college.

A friend of mine who was in the honors program at the university I attended, was provided a full-ride scholarship, a part-time on-campus job, early registration, and many other small perks. It wasn’t easy but he managed to complete his degree debt-free.

Another option is to become a resident advisor. RA’s at my college’s student housing receive a full stipend to live on campus worth about $7,000 a year, an unlimited meal plan worth up to $4,300 a year, and a small monthly allowance.

These two options might be great for certain students looking to hack their way through college debt-free.


Attend a Community College for Two Years

Many students choose to go straight from high school to a 4-year university. This is a great option for those with full-ride scholarships or whose parents have the means to pay for their college. For the students who will rely heavily on student loans, a great alternative is a community college. You might have a more personal experience with professors, save thousands of dollars on tuition, and have two or three years to figure out what you really want to study.

In California, they have what is called the Board of Governor’s Fee Waiver which essentially covers all of the enrollment fees (tuition) and reduces parking fees. This is huge. I have several friends who took the community college route, received the fee waiver, and transferred to the same university I was attending, debt-free.


Search for part-time jobs or internships

This was the strategy I used to offset my costs during the latter part of my college years. Since I was a majoring in a science field, I received daily emails from faculty regarding part-time jobs and internships that were available during the school year and summer.

Since my schedule was full of lectures and labs, I opted to just work during the summer and save it all for school. The three internships that I landed were relatively well-paid and allowed for over-time work, which I always volunteered for.

If you don’t receive emails for part-time jobs or internships, then you can always ask the professors directly. On several occasions, I’ve seen professors receive research grants and pay students for sampling or fieldwork. Lastly, you should check with your college’s career center and see what’s available on or off-campus.


Is my degree worth the debt?

If you’re accumulating a lot of student loan debt for a degree that does not provide many career options or good earning potential, I would encourage you to take a step back and review all of your options. Can you work a part-time job to offset the amount of student loan money you’re borrowing? Can your parents help pay a small portion of it? Get creative and try to figure out how you can cover the costs without the loans. If you don’t find a way to cash flow your costs then you’ll have to decide if your degree is worth obtaining additional debt.

An easy tip for this is simply googling “entry-level salaries” for your field of study in a particular region or state. This will provide useful information regarding salaries, expected growth for that field, and available jobs in your area. If the results show promising growth for that field and have good earning potential over time, then it might be worth the additional debt. However, if the results don’t show promising growth in that field of study or good earning potential, then you might want to consider something different.

You’ll thank yourself later

Student loans will most certainly always be available, however, they shouldn’t be your only option in paying for college. You will ultimately have to decide what the best options are and how you’ll navigate paying your college expenses. Remember that the goal is to completely mitigate or reduce your over-borrowing so you won’t have to hassle with interest-bearing student loan payments as you begin your post-grad life.


Onley, Posted by Nora, and Nora Onley. “How Do Schools Calculate Your Financial Aid?” ED.gov Blog, 18 Aug. 2017, blog.ed.gov/2017/08/schools-calculate-financial-aid/.