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The Guru's Blog

Managing College Debt

Monday, May 22, 2017

There’s been a lot in the news recently with the increasing burden that financial aid places on college graduates and their families.  An article 6 months ago showcased an older gentleman working two jobs to pay for the loans he took out to finance his granddaughter’s education. Instead of a relaxing retirement, he’s working full time and probably will until the day he dies.  An article in this week’s Courier Times talked about the impact that loans had on a few local families and how one student found a college that allowed her to get her bachelor’s degree without borrowing anything.

College Match Guru has always been a strong advocate of finding affordable colleges that offer great value.  Often, students get “stuck on the Ivies;’ they believe that an Ivy-League or highly selective college education should be their goal, no matter the cost. But one of the disadvantages of attending an Ivy League school is the cost of attendance.  Many Ivies are strictly Needs Based schools.  They don’t give scholarships based on merit, athletics or talent – only on financial need.  But there are many quality schools out there than can offer comparable educational opportunities that do offer merit and institutional grants to their top students.  Want to be an engineer?  I’ve seen many students apply to Drexel and Penn engineering programs.  Drexel awarded some of these students large scholarships, on the order of $20,000 per year, while Penn offered none or very little aid.

The decision of which school to attend can be very difficult for astudent.  After all, Drexel is a third-tier school, while Penn is rated at the very top of just about every ranking list.  Still, $80,000 over four years is a lot of money.  If you had to borrow that at 6% a year, you’d be paying an additional $6,876 a year for 20 years.  And that’s assuming you could refinance your loans for 20 years, instead of the standard 10.

But why not take advantage of the hard work you put into high school?  Many schools will offer significant merit aid to their top students.  A Presidential scholarship often means that you’d pay only for room, board and miscellaneous fees.  Even if your family had no money saved for your college education, you could still graduate with only the $31,000 maximum allowed by the Stafford loan program if you managed to work hard over the summers and had a work-study job during the school year.  That’s less than the national average for private schools of $37,000.

Even without merit aid, there are often great alternatives to the high cost of the most selective schools.  If you get an Associate’s Degree from a Pennsylvania or New Jersey community college, every one of your 60 credits will transfer to one of 4-year state institutions.  In fact, you may not even need to leave the community college to get your bachelor’s degree.  Bucks County Community College has developed programs with Delaware Valley University where students can get their degree from Del Val while studying at BCCC.  Many other community colleges are developing similar programs.

It’s hard to separate emotions from the decision of which college to attend.  Penn sounds better to a 17 year old than Drexel and Drexel may sound better than Temple.  A community college?  Come on!  But the cost of a degree from Kutztown University is 30% less than Drexel and half of the cost at Penn. The decision should really be based on two factors:  What is the economic or advantage of attending the expensive school, and what are your career goals that justify the additional cost.

Penn has a great nursing program.  So does Bloomsburg University at a fraction of the cost. In fact, Bloomsburg was ranked by College Choice as the most affordable nursing program in Pennsylvania.   Penn is associated with the Penn Medical School and hospital, but Bloomsburg has a Master’s program and is associated with Geisinger Hospital.  Unless you’re planning to do research or you’re looking for an advantage in getting into Masters or advanced education program, why do you need the Penn program?

How about that engineering program we talked about earlier?  If you just want a job in mechanical engineering, Drexel’s co-op program will give you the opportunity of actually working for two or three companies as a part of your undergraduate program.  Many Drexel students get offers through these co-op programs.  Penn doesn’t offer this opportunity.  Students have to find their own summer jobs and often have to apply from scratch for jobs following graduation.

One thing is for certain.  Mortgaging your future to attend an expensive college is never a good idea.  Very few graduates can overcome a $100,00 debt without major financial sacrifices during most of their young lives.  Do you really want to sacrifice a nice home, an annual vacation and nice car for a plaque on the wall?


College Match Guru

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