How to Finish College with No Debt

Student loans have been in the news lately. The current brouhaha comes as interest on student loans is about to double. That sounds a bit more ominous than it really is. The rate will go from 3.4 to 6.8 percent--still quite low by historical standards. But if you are sporting $200,000 in school loans, any interest rate hike hurts.

The response to this "crisis" is typical for an election year. President Obama first called for a moratorium on rate increases. Mitt Romney was quick to second that idea. Apparently, a lot of college students and recent graduates vote, so the "chicken-in-every-pot" form of government is in full swing. We'll worry about personal responsibility in a non-election year.

If you've already racked up student loans and don't have the income to pay them off, you're in a tough spot. Student debt guaranteed by the federal government is not dischargeable in bankruptcy, making the situation even harder for many. And that says nothing of the debt many have incurred with student credit cards. But if you have yet to start college or are in school now, it's not too late. There are many things you can do to avoid the problems with school loans that many are experiencing.

Here are a few options to consider:

1. All Degrees are Not Created Equal. I recently read about a woman who had more than $100,000 in school loans incurred while she pursued a master's degree in women's studies. She was unemployed and unable to pay back her school loans. So she joined a protest. If I could have asked her a question, it would have been what her plan was when she entered the program. What type of job did she plan to pursue that would justify spending so much money on that type of a degree? In contrast, degrees in business or many technical degrees (think engineering) are far more valuable. You may want to study in a liberal arts field (my degree was in English), but make sure you can justify the cost.

2. A Four-Year College is Not the Only Option. A traditional four-year college is not the only option. For example, more and more students are attending two-year schools first, and then transferring to a four-year program. Community colleges typically cost much less, and many have arrangements with four-year colleges that guarantee admission your junior year if you maintain a certain GPA. In addition, online colleges have become mainstream over the last 10 years, offering virtually every degree imaginable for significantly less money.

3. State Schools are Less Expensive. In-state tuition at public colleges cost significantly less than most private schools. Yet a lot of students continue to earn liberal arts degrees at expensive private colleges. Some of the best colleges in the country are state schools with reasonable tuition. In Virginia, where I live, state schools include the University of Virginia, William & Mary, and Virginia Tech, three of the best universities in the country.

4. You Can Work in School and Still Have Fun. I worked during college and law school. If I could do it all over again, I would work even more. I finished my law degree with $55,000 in school loans 20 years ago. It took me nearly 20 years to pay that money back. Had I worked harder during school, I could have finished owing nothing. The point is: Get a job (or two). Yes, college is a great time to make friends and have fun. But don't mortgage your future in the hopes that a high-paying job will cover the cost of an education.

DR is the founder of the popular personal finance blog The Dough Roller, and the credit card review site Credit Card Offers IQ.



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