College costs, debt rising: Ways to adapt

| February 6, 2019 | 0 Comments
College debt

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College debt hit $1.5 trillion for U.S. households last year, up from $1.2 trillion in 2017 and $500 billion higher than 2012’s $1 trillion.

Debt for college is higher than for credit cards, which the Federal Reserve in New York last year put at $815 billion, and higher than all debt except home mortgages, at $8.9 trillion.

Rising college debt is triggered in large part by higher costs to obtain a higher education. Tuition and fees over the last five years rose 10 percent at private, nonprofit four-year universities, from an average of $32,500 in 2013-2014 to $35,830 in 2018-2019, according to the nonprofit, New York-based College Board. That cost rose 7 percent at public four-year colleges and universities, from $9,590 to $10,230, and 5 percent at two-year public colleges, from $3,500 to $3,660.

Those increases followed 14 percent increases in the five years between 2008-2009 and 2013-2014 at private four-year institutions, and nearly 30 percent increases in that same time frame in public two-year and four-year schools, according to the College Board.

But there are ways families can keep debt at a minimum, though some might require hard choices, said Kris Roach, director of financial aid at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul.

The sticker price is more daunting at many schools than the actual costs, particularly at private institutions, as schools increase merit-and need-based financial aid, she said. Some public universities and colleges over the last 10 years have begun raising more money from alumni and others as well, helping students to attend through scholarships, she said.

Parents should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to get a snapshot of their financial strength and what government-subsidized grants and loans might be available, both for them and their student, Roach said. Students can apply to multiple schools; families can lay out the financial pros and cons of each, and decide what best fits their situation, Roach said.

FAFSA does expect a lot from families, Roach said, because the government considers the family responsible for the cost of an education. And federal grants and loans have not kept up with the rising costs of higher education, she said. Under FAFSA, children generally are considered dependents until age 24.

But parents and their children can do things to pave the way to financial success in college, she said. Children should take challenging courses, work hard and do well in high school, as schools look at rank in class, ACT and SAT scores and other markers for successful and ambitious students, she said. Volunteer work at school and in the community and extracurricular activities also mean a great deal to colleges, Roach said. They also can apply for any number of scholarships offered by nonprofit and other groups, she said.

Parents can save for their children’s education and/or use their current cash flow, mixing that money with scholarships, financial aid and loans to keep debt down, she said. Students can save for college and help pay while in college by working each summer and through the school year, Roach said. Many schools offer work-study programs on campus, she said.

Families with more than one child will find that FAFSA essentially splits the expected family contribution among their kids, Roach said. A family expected to provide $30,000, for example, would see that split between two children, at $15,000 each. That can help each child receive more in grants and loans, she said.

If a school identified as a favorite by a student appears to be out of reach financially, a decision might have to be made to take the next best choice, Roach said. And if a four-year university or college is too expensive, a less costly two-year or technical college might be the best decision, she said.

“If a student is set on a college, but can’t afford it, you might have to disappoint” him or her, Roach said. “But maybe the second choice is not a bad thing.”

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