College students who recently graduated in the class of 2016 amassed an average debt of $37,000. They joined the 42 million Americans who currently carry, collectively, $1.3 trillion in education debt.
These statistics, in the August edition of Consumer Reports, can be daunting for students who are about to embark on their college journey. As students, and their parents, get wrapped up in the search for the “perfect college,” they often overlook the steps that can be taken to minimize the financial impact on their lives after those college days draw to a close.
What can students do, in advance of heading off to college, to reduce their financial burden in their post-college life?
First of all, students should do everything within their power to insure that they will be able to earn their college degree in four years or less. This requires some advanced planning. In high school, students who are academically able should take as many AP (Advanced Placement) courses as possible. While researching and visiting potential colleges, students should confirm that they would indeed be given college credit if they attain a certain score (usually a “4” or a “5”) on the end-of-year AP exam.
While still in high school, students can also start amassing college credits by taking courses (at very affordable rates) at their local community college. Once students are in college, they will usually be allowed to take an additional course (at no extra cost) each semester, thus accumulating even more credits. Combined, these strategies will often allow students to graduate from college in three, or three-and-a-half years, greatly reducing their college expenditures.
Students should avoid starting college “undecided” regarding a choice of major. There are two pitfalls here. The first is that, once a student does choose a major, many of the courses previously taken may not be part of the required course curriculum. Hence, the student will often have to spend an additional semester, year, or even longer at college. Secondly, at many colleges, students who were admitted undecided have to apply to be admitted into their major of choice. If rejected, they have to transfer to a different college or pursue a major that may not be to their liking.
When finances are a serious issue, students should consider taking a “gap year” before beginning college. Students should apply to their colleges of choice as high school seniors and, when accepted, ask to have their admission deferred for a year. Almost all colleges are happy to oblige. Students can then work for a year, ear-marking their earnings toward their future college costs while gaining insight into the career they hope to pursue.
Students who are interested in a military career can join ROTC and have some, or all, of their college costs covered in exchange for their participation in ROTC on campus during their college years and a commitment to active duty afterwards.
Students who are interested in studying abroad – for all of their college years – will find tuitions much more affordable in Canada and the United Kingdom (where courses will still be in English). In the U.K., undergraduate programs are typically three years long, offering another opportunity to save money.
Students should identify, before beginning college, the academic field they with to pursue and then carefully research appropriate scholarships. Hundreds of scholarships are available to students seeking an education in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields. The SMART Scholarship, for example, is offered by the Department of Defense and provides full tuition and a stipend to students in STEM willing to work for the DOD upon graduation.
Students should seek scholarships for any characteristics specific to them. There are scholarships for: under-represented minorities, women seeking traditionally male-oriented careers, legacy students attending the alma mater of a parent, first-in-family to attend college, commitment to community service, and, of course, talent – be it in music, art, writing, athletics, or a host of other areas.
Students should carefully prepare for the SAT and take it several times in order to get the highest score of which they are capable. The bottom line is that the SAT (which is marked on a curve, pitting students in competition with their peers) is the criteria most often used by colleges in awarding academic scholarships.
It’s vital for students to think seriously about finances before heading off to college as the repercussions of educational debt can be life-changing. College graduates often find it impossible to launch independent lives – buying a home, starting a family, saving for retirement – when a large chunk of their paychecks are earmarked to repay their college loans.