Student Loan Debt is Crushing Dreams

For our parents and grandparents, going to college wasn’t necessarily a step in gaining a good job and earning a decent living. Fast forward a few decades and everyone assumes that after high school our formal education continues at least four more years.

It’s understood among Gen Y and the Millennials that anyone who wants a well-paying job needs at least an undergraduate degree. But this isn’t an invitation to spend gobs of money to attend any school that accepts you. Likewise, the party scene and the caliber of the football team should have no bearing on your decision.

Instead, take a good look at tuition, fees, room and board, and what level of scholarships and grants are available.  In fact, total cost should be a primary consideration for students in their college selection process.

chart of the day, tuition, home prices, cpi, 1978-2010

This graph shows college tuition compared with home prices and the overall CPI from 1978 to 2010. (The CPI, or Consumer Price Index, is an overall measure of the cost of a set of goods and services paid by consumers over time.) Since 1978, college tuition has increased by a factor of more than 10x from its base of 100, compared with housing at 4x and the overall CPI at about 3.5x. It’s clear as day that college tuition is quickly becoming our next bubble.

This is the reason grads are in a heap of trouble today. Students simply enrolled in colleges regardless of the cost. They filled out some forms, took a quiz and the money just showed up. Now that they’re graduating and faced with dim job prospects, they’re wondering whether that private school tuition was such a good investment.

What many prospective college students fail to do today is think about the total, long-term cost of going to college. When taking out a car loan or mortgage, there are certain terms laid out by the lender that force us to look at the long-term costs, how long we’ll be in debt, and whether we can afford to make the payments each month going forward. Student loans are much more open-ended because of the various repayment and deferment options, which makes it much harder to assess the total costs beforehand. Plus, high school seniors often have no idea what their salaries will be after graduation, so repayment is far from their minds.

My youngest sister is going to college in the fall, which got me thinking about all of this. She’s going into psychology, but isn’t sure what she wants to do with it. Over the past year we’ve talked about student loans occasionally. I remind her of the financial newspapers and blogs, which go to great lengths to document the effects of crushing debt levels on the lives of grads and their young families.

Some couples are putting off marriage, buying a home or having a baby because of their student loan debt. As an example, my wife and I are putting off saving for a house down payment until we pay off more of our debt.

If you have a child or other family member in high school, talk to them about these issues. Help them understand that they’ll eventually have to pay back all those loans. Let them know about other options like scholarships, grants and even going to community college for a year or two.

A college education is an investment, just like stocks or starting your own business. Therefore, students need to think about whether the benefits outweigh the costs for their chosen school and what their likely salary will be based on their major. This will give them motivation to limit their borrowing and think ahead to the repayment process after graduation.

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The Best Way to Save for Your Child’s College Education

College costs have increased faster than the rate of inflation over the past several years. The higher costs are most often being met with more student loans. If you’re in a position to help your child pay for some of his or her college education, a 529 plan is the best way to do so.

I should mention that before you consider saving any money towards your kid’s college, you should be saving every penny you can for your own retirement. You don’t want to have to depend on your kids financially during retirement. In addition, there are loans, scholarships and grants for college expenses. There are no such benefits for retirement.

So what is a 529 plan? Basically, it’s a state-sponsored college savings account. Created by Congress in 1996, these accounts give families an efficient way to set aside money for college expenses. The idea is to set up the account in your name and contribute what you can each month to the plan’s investment options. The simplest option is the age-based fund, which is heavily invested in stocks when your child is very young and turns more conservative each year as the child approaches college.

It goes from being an investment account in the early years to basically a savings account when your child reaches the last years of high school. Other than putting money in each month, it requires very little effort on your part.

The primary benefit of 529 plans is that all earnings on the money you put in the plan are spent tax-free if used for eligible college expenses. These could include tuition, fees, books, supplies and equipment. In addition, some states offer a tax break on money you put into the plan.

A common misconception is that you must use your own state’s 529 plan if you want to save for college. In fact, you can use any plan in the country. Every state has at least one 529 plan, but some have several. If your state offers a tax break and the total account fees are low (generally below 0.5% annually), put the money in your own state’s plan. If not, many experts agree that Utah’s plan is the best in the country because of its low costs and investment options.

One thing you never, ever want to do is pay a commission on college savings. You want every dollar to go towards paying for your kid’s college and not lining the pocket of some stockbroker. To minimize costs, set up the plan yourself rather than going through a financial adviser. This is another reason Utah’s plan stands out. Every state except Utah has an option to go with a full-commission adviser who charges fees as high as 2.6%. If a state is willing to charge that much, can they really be trusted with your hard-earned money?

Parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents or others can open 529 accounts for a child. If the child chooses not to attend college, the owner of the account can simply change the beneficiary of the account to another child with no consequences. You can even use the money for yourself if you plan to attend college or graduate school.

Because the account is in your name, you have flexibility and control over how it is spent. In other words, your niece, nephew, or grandchild won’t be able to blow the money on a shiny new sports car! If they want it, they have to use it for their education. The money won’t hurt the child when it comes time to determine how much financial aid they qualify for since it’s not in the child’s name.

The cost of going to college will continue to increase each year for the foreseeable future. Choosing an age-based fund within a low-cost 529 plan is the best way to save for your kid’s college expenses. Just remember to max out your own retirement savings first.

To learn more about 529 plans, a great place to start is

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How much is a college degree worth?

It’s common knowledge that having a college degree is worth more on average than just a high school diploma. But just how much more?

According to, the answer is $1 million. From the article:

The Census Bureau has taken a new stab at answering the age-old question: Just how much is a college degree worth?

The answer: $1 million.

That is a rough average, of course, but data collected in an extensive Bureau study suggests that a college degree is worth about $1 million in additional lifetime earnings compared with a comparable worker with only a high school diploma.

Based on 2008 data, full-time workers with a bachelor’s degree had median earnings of $57,000, compared with $34,000 for workers with only a high school diploma.

So with a college degree my earnings increase 68 percent, effectively giving me a $23,00o raise. And this isn’t just a one-time raise, but a yearly one. After a 40-year career and increased earning potential, this comes out to over $1 million in additional income over your working lifetime.

There are also non-monetary benefits of going to college. Among them:

  • You acquire social skills as you interact with those around you
  • You learn to be independent and to take care of yourself
  • The opportunity to take on leadership roles in clubs, dorms, and in the classroom
  • You learn the importance of networking with professors, faculty and other students
  • The opportunity to take classes on subjects that interest you
  • The opportunity to study abroad
  • You make friendships that can last a lifetime

But is college for everyone? Some argue that you don’t need a college degree to make a good living for yourself. For example, if you have an idea for a business you may not want to risk putting it off for four years. Another barrier for some is that nobody in their family has gone to college before. First-generation college students face some unique challenges such as a potential lack of family support. Still others opt for military service. Whatever the reason, there are some cases where it may not make sense to go to college right after high school.

You also have to consider the opportunity costs of college. These include the wages you would have earned, had you started working right out of high school; travel; volunteer work; or anything else you might have otherwise done with your time and resources.

College may not be right for everyone, but it is my belief that everyone should be given the opportunity to attend college. Up-front cost at a public school should never be an issue because you’ll more than make it back during your working years. In addition, going to college provides intangible benefits like character building that add to the value of a college education.