REVISED: Avoid My Student Loan Mistakes!

This post is directed mostly at young adults, especially those fresh out of high school, who are considering college.  If there’s ever a time you learn from someone else’s mistakes, please, please let it be now!  Going to a for-profit school and wracking up nearly $80,000 in student loan debt was the biggest mistake of my life. My mistake will haunt me for up to 25 years and will probably cost me close to $200,000 in total repayment. Don’t let this happen to you!

IS COLLEGE WORTH IT?

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You need to ask yourself what it is you really want to do.  If you’re not sure, or think you might switch majors, it’s okay to put off college for a few years.  Work different jobs, find something you like and you can take this time to save up money to pay out of pocket when you do decide to pursue a degree.

If you find yourself wanting to have some kind of job where your portfolio is what gets you hired, a degree might not be the smartest option.  If you’re good enough at your craft and passionate enough to pursue your ideal career, you’ll probably be more successful than most of the schmucks who went to art school and wracked up six figure student loan debt.

Perhaps a certificate would suffice?  Brainbench is a site where you pay to take a test and receive a certificate should you pass. W3Schools offers a lot of online tutorials and you can also pay to take a certification test.

Free online education is very up and coming.  Udacity, Coursera, Self Made Scholar are a few that offer free online courses.  There’s also Code Academy for those of you interesting in learning to code.

College is no longer the guaranteed path to a successful career.  I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree and have worked only a few FREElance gigs (yes, some of those were unpaid, lured into the fallacy that it would “be good for my portfolio”) and I’ve worked a part-time minimum wage job since I graduated in 2009.  Is a BA now the equivalent of a high school diploma?  My brother went through a welding bootcamp offered by Gateway Technical College and wound up with a job starting at $10 an hour.  More than I have ever made!  I don’t know the price of it but I’m guessing it was much more affordable than my degree!

UPDATE:  I need to share with you CLEP – College Level Exam Program.  You can learn about a subject then pay about $80 to take a test (plus whatever fee the college charges) and you get credit for the class should you pass.  I’ve never heard of this program before a friend recommended it, but I wish I had!

I also need to add that you should highly consider taking Advanced Placement (AP) courses while you’re in high school!

WHERE ARE YOU GOING TO COLLEGE?

No matter where you go, I highly suggest attending a community college first.  Community colleges are usually much more affordable and this would be a great time to gain the credits for fundamental and general education courses that will transfer to the college or university you really want to attend.

I highly suggest avoiding for-profit schools like The Art Institutes, University of Phoenix, Kaplan, DeVry, etc. Generally, if you see commercials on the television, they’re for-profit and probably using taxpayer money to fund those annoying commercials.  These schools pump out 100s of graduates every quarter at each of their many campuses across the country and there just aren’t enough jobs for all these graduates.  These schools are usually way over-priced.

The going rate for The Art Institutes is over $86,000 for tuition ALONE!  We’re looking at $100,000 when you think about other fees, housing, supplies, and textbooks!  Yet, their graduate employment statistics (which can be found on their site) reflect an average salary of $30,000 or less!  These schools are student loan debt traps!  Many of the students that wind up at these schools end up dropping out and still owe five-figure debts!  Don’t fall for it like I did!

aituition

The AI I attended current tuition rates

Consider going to a college near your home to save money on housing expenses.  School housing is generally more expensive than if you were to find a place to rent near your college with a couple roommates.

HOW WILL YOU PAY FOR IT?

The best way to pay for it is out of pocket.  As I mentioned before, it’s not a requirement to attend college directly out of high school.  You could take a couple years to work and save up money to pay out of pocket.   You may even find yourself a job that offers tuition reimbursement!  If you wait long enough, maybe tuition prices will come down with all the attention the student debt crisis is getting these days.  No one ever said you had to complete college in four years, so take it slow and try to pay as you can afford it!

Also consider waiting to attend college until you are considered an independent student.  As a dependent student, your parents income and their expected financial contribution will factor in how much federal aid you receive.  You are more likely to receive more financial aid if you are an independent student. Independent students are generally 24 years of age or older, married, or have dependents (children).

You should also look into grants and scholarships.  Winning scholarships may not be easy but it’s important to always be on the lookout for ones you qualify for and to never stop applying for them while you’re attending school.  Check out your financial aid office for information on grants and scholarships.  Check your local library for books on grants and scholarships.

Consider Public Service programs, such as AmeriCorps for tuition assistance.  The award is equivalent to the Pell Grant offered in that year, which currently stands at $5,635, but be aware that the amount will change depending on funding.   Perhaps consider a degree program where you will find yourself working in a qualified position to be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

Know the cost of your entire education and heavily weigh it against what most graduates are making these days.  Factor in the poor job market, don’t over-estimate.

It’s extremely important to educate yourself about student loans!  I can’t stress this enough.  DO NOT SIGN for anything unless you fully understand what you’re getting in to!  Consider student loans a last resort.

Borrow wisely.  Smart borrowing would limit you to 1/3 of the cost of your education to ensure you will be able to afford repayment.

MILITARY BENEFITS

While I don’t necessarily recommend joining the military just to pay for college, there are a number of benefits that may assist you, your spouse, or your dependents in affording education.

There’s tuition assistance for active duty members.

There’s also the obvious GI Bill.  I’m no expert on this subject, but there’s a lot of valuable information available at the military.com website.  The best option when using GI Bill benefits is a public school.  All tuition and fees are covered for in-state students.  For most colleges, an in-state student has resided in the state for 12 consecutive months but it is important to know your school’s requirements to avoid increased tuition rates.

For private schools, the current GI Bill maximum benefit is $18,077.50 per academic year.  Be very cautious about choosing a for-profit school as yearly tuition often exceeds that amount, as noted above.  For-profit schools market hard towards veterans because they have to meet a 90/10 requirement.  90% of their income can come from federal sources, the other 10% has to be from non-federal, which the GI bill counts towards this 10%.  As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, that means most of their profit is coming from taxpayer funded federal dollars.  So all those fancy-schmancy commercials you see on tv are your taxpayer dollars at work!

Check out Frontline’s Educating Sergeant Pantzke video.  Consider yourself warned about for-profits.  

It’s also possible to transfer your GI Bill benefits to your spouse or children.  I must note that when transferring benefits to a spouse, they are not eligible for housing allowance or the book stipend while the other spouse is active duty.

There is also the Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts program (MyCAA) which is currently limited to a maximum assistance of $4,000.  It’s available to spouses of active duty service members in pay grades E1-E5, W1-W2, and O1-O2.  I have personally used the MyCAA benefits to get a certificate in web design.  Be cautious in choosing a school and a program.  Most of the colleges in my search were for-profits and the certificate programs were well above the $4,000 mark.  I managed to find one that covered the full cost, including books and fees.  It’s important to be impervious to their attempts to charge you extra for services they initially told you would be free!  My experience with Allied American University makes me never want to take an online course again.  It certainly wasn’t worth $4,000.

STUDENT LOAN INFO

Student loans are not good debt.  No debt is good debt.  They are risky and predatory and that is why it is important to know what you’re getting in to!

Do not take out extra student loans to buy a car, a flat screen tv, or to fund a vacation.  Educational expenses only!

Know the difference between Federal and Private student loans.  If you have to take out student loans, take out federal ones first.  Federal loans are either subsidized or unsubsidized.  Subsidized loans do not gain interest while you are in school, unsubsidized loans do.  Private loans generally have higher interest rates and they also gain interest while you’re in school.  It is important to pay any accrued interest while you are attending.  Once you enter repayment after your grace period, any unpaid interest will be capitalized.  That means it will be added to your principal balance and you will end up paying interest on that unpaid interest. This will continue to balloon your balance.  Payments go to interest first and it may take you years before your balance is reduced by a significant amount.

Do not get a co-signer (and never be a co-signer).  The co-signer is just as responsible for the loan as the primary borrower.  If you can’t pay, your co-signer will have to or they will face default with you.  It can be difficult to get a co-signer removed from student loan debt.  Just don’t do it.

Don’t let your parents take out a Parent PLUS loan.  These loans have very few repayment options and many wind up in default.  Our parents are older and may have their social security garnished!  Don’t let them take out loans to pay for your education!

As I mentioned before, borrow wisely.  Your payments should be affordable if you only borrow about 1/3 of the total cost of your education.  I’d hate to see anyone wind up paying 50% or more of their income towards their student loans!

Default is bad.  Federal loans can garnish your wages, up to 15%.  Private loans can do this as well but need to take you to court first.  Default can tack on additional fees up to 25% of your balance.  You can rehabilitate your loans but it usually takes 9 months of payments to your lender’s pockets.

Student loans are very hard to discharge in bankruptcy.  You have to prove “undue hardship” which is difficult to do unless you can prove you can never work again or that you’ll never be able to pay off your student loans.

THE BOTTOM LINE

PLEASE avoid student loan debt like the plague!  If you have to get student loans, borrow wisely!  Educate yourself about them to avoid making the same mistakes I did!  If you have children who are thinking about college, educate yourself and share what you learn with them.  25 years is a long time to be weighed down by insurmountable debt!

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19 thoughts on “REVISED: Avoid My Student Loan Mistakes!

  1. Agreed! I went to “one of the best schools in the nation” for my M.A. and it’s been a joke so far. I have gotten some cool opportunities, and I don’t regret it per se, but the debt is so hard to deal with. I hate it! i just want a permanent job so I can try to actually pay it back quicker.

    • I don’t necessarily regret going to a debt factory because of the experiences and the people I met. I wouldn’t be with my husband had I not gone but if I could do it all over, I wouldn’t have slacked off at community college and probably could have gotten through with no student loans! I hear you on the job front too!

  2. This is a fantastic post, Kasey. As a freelancing artist (potentially successful, I’d like to think?), I’d definitely like to add that I have yet to see a degree that teaches you the business aspect of being in the arts. I owe my skills to repetition over my teachers, and my knowledge about art as a career to a mixture of my first job and a lot of trial and error over my degree program. One of my greatest disappointments when I was searching for a school where I could complete my degree was a severe lack of business and marketing courses. I applied to five different schools in the KC area, none of which require you to take a business course one, yet most fine arts students’ end goal is to freelance. How are they supposed to achieve that without knowing where to go or what to do?

    And the teachers see students as competition, or they simply lack the how-to knowledge and that’s why they’re teaching. The phrase, “If you can’t do, you teach.” is a perfect fit for many college professors in the arts field. I only really ever met two that I considered successful outside of their teaching career and both of them rarely had time for class. They would show up late, leave early and generally not be available when needed. Granted, one of them has given me many job leads, so I can’t complain too much. He’s been the only teacher I would consider worthwhile in my learning career. And I’m actually guilty of turning him in to the department head for consistently being an hour late to class or not showing up at all.

    • Haha! I have to laugh that you turned him in. It’s nice that he’s successful and all but if students are missing out on valuable learning time (they certainly do pay for it!) because he’s late, then he shouldn’t be teaching!
      I’d say you are a successful freelance artist! You bring up a good point about the lack of the business aspect in the art field. It seems employers these days are more inclined to hire artists on a contractual basis and I too see the need to implement some type of business courses into the arts. Maybe some day when you’re not so bogged down by all your clients you could teach freelance business courses online? Or perhaps write an ebook?

  3. Great post! Greg got a bachelor’s degree in theatre the first time he went to college, and he obviously found that that wasn’t a good use of college dollars since he isn’t in that industry! The second time he graduated, it was with a much more useful degree…but we had about 20K of student loan debt to pay off. I’m glad that’s over with!

    • Thanks! I can’t wait to pay off mine! I can honestly say my degree, too, wasn’t a good use of college dollars. Maybe someday I’ll become a successful freelance artist? I’ve considered going back for a second degree but I won’t do it unless I can afford to pay for it out of pocket. No more student loans!

  4. Great post Kasey! I’m going to share it with my nephew who will be attending DePaul in the fall. He received a partial scholarship with his admittance letter, since then we have filled out his FAFSA, and we are now going to tackle looking for scholarships and grants. I’ve talked to him about money and debt, hopefully we can get him through without a ton of debt. He decided to stay in Chicago, since he can live at home during college, and he was lucky enough to get a part-time job during his senior year, that he’ll be able to work at during college. Your advice on school debt is well timed, as so many are getting ready to start technical school/college/graduate school, they really need to determine if the debt they’ll take on will be worth it, if they’ll be struggling to find a $30,000 a year job afterwards!

  5. This is a great post. I was extremely lucky to have my college tuition paid for by my parents, but I really do wonder about the usefulness of a student going directly from high school to college. From a social aspect, it seems like there are certain advantages to doing things the conventional way. But from a professional standpoint, I’ve been thinking a lot about how much more I probably would have gotten out of college if I had spent some time working and living in the real world first. I don’t think it’s really possible for most people to know what they want to do with their life, or really even what it takes to survive independently, without real-world experience. I know that my school had many resources available that I didn’t take advantage of, largely because I wasn’t mature enough to realize their usefulness.

    Thanks for the thoughtful insights!

    • Thanks for commenting, Matt. I’m so glad you got through college without student loans! I see so many people either switching majors half way through or finding their current degree useless once they graduate and they go back for something more practical, taking on more student loan debt. I really do think it’s important to live in the real world independently first before deciding what we want to do for the rest of our lives! Most young adults aren’t prepared to make those choices.

  6. I want to to thank you for this very good read!! I definitely loved every bit of it.
    I’ve got you book-marked to check out new stuff you post…

  7. Similar scenario with me too. I was under student loan debt for a very long time and thank god that I could finally pay it off last year. I must say you have done a tremendous job here and loved your post.
    Thanks for sharing it.

  8. Great comments to the soon to be or current college students! Don’t fall for the trap that you have to have debt to get an education. Community College or schools where you can afford to pay for them as you go are your best option. All student loans guarantee are that your options will be more limited once you finally get out of school. Unpaid internship with your dream company? Forget it, you have student loans to pay. Taking a smaller salary for great experience? Nope, have to make those minimum payments.

    For any parents of college age students out there, please help them make good decisions about their future including NOT taking on student loan debt! Keep up the great posts and moving forward in your quest for debt freedom. My family has been working at it for 3 years and have managed to pay off $100k in in debt so far with just a little more to go. We also started cash-flowing our oldest daughter’s college so she won’t have to take on debt!
    Stacie

  9. Pingback: You’ve Got to be Kidding Me | Debt Perception

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