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Borrowing money to pay for college is a tough decision, especially if you’re worried about eventually paying it back. With tuition costs and the general cost of living rising, students are taking on more and more debt– a monthly burden that could make it harder to achieve financial goals after graduation. It’s not uncommon for American undergraduates to borrow between $30,000 and $40,000 in student loans to complete a bachelor’s degree.
A quickly changing job market and advancements in technology like AI make it harder to plan long-term for what a career will look like.
So, are student loans worth it? Your financial situation, how much aid you qualify for, shifting prospects in your career field and the return on investment of your major are all factors you need to consider when determining the answer to that question.
Questions to ask yourself before borrowing
Before borrowing student loans, you will want to consider the decision from multiple angles. Be realistic as you evaluate your financial situation currently, estimate your needs while in school and project your earnings after graduation.
Do I know what I want to do for a career or will I need time to decide?
Some students start college knowing what degree program– and ultimately, what kind of career– they would like to pursue. Many others, though, may need time in the college environment to consider this decision. If you need time to decide, you might consider a concurrent enrollment program, community college or other low-cost option to minimize what you need to borrow as you tackle general education requirements.
Do I need a degree to accomplish the personal and career goals I have?
Once you’ve chosen a suitable career path, you may find that a college degree isn’t necessary at all to pursue your goals. Trade school programs, tech or coding boot camps, military service and on-the-job training may all be alternatives to a degree program that can get you to work without borrowing student loans in the first place.
What’s the return on investment (ROI) for my preferred degree program?
Your designated career path starts with your major. Some jobs don’t pay as well as others, which means that if you pick one that doesn’t have a high income attached, you may spend a long time paying off your loans or struggle to make payments.
If you’re unsure about the return on investment of your potential career, check out what your job could pay through the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Salary.com or Glassdoor. You can also compare the most valuable college majors if you’re still trying to decide on a career path. Finally, you can use this information to try to find an education option that is within the ROI.
How much should I borrow?
The amount you borrow in loans depends on how much you need. If you have scholarships and grants, you may not need to take out as much as you would if you didn’t have free money. If you didn’t receive scholarships and grants, you’ll need to borrow enough to cover all of the costs you can’t afford out of pocket.
To avoid borrowing — and then repaying — a lot of money, see if you qualify for need-based aid through the FAFSA and apply for private scholarships. Also see if your family has any money saved up for your college education; the less you have to cover with student loans, the less you’ll have to pay in interest.
What’s my repayment plan?
Before you take on student loan debt, consider your future repayment plan. Federal student loans and many private student loans start repayment six months after you graduate or drop below half-time enrollment. This is helpful if you don’t land a job in your field straight out of college or if it takes you a while to come up with regular payments.
If you’ve exhausted all of your federal student loan options, you might want to look at private student loan rates. These types of loans don’t have the same repayment options, but you may find a repayment term that better fits your budget. If you need to adjust your repayment plan, you may qualify for a loan refinance.
Are there any ways I can reduce the amount I need to borrow or pay it back ahead of schedule?
Regardless of how much you borrow, you will need to repay the amount– with interest. One key to borrowing responsibly is to only borrow what you will need, and if possible, to repay it as quickly as possible. This approach will help you to save on interest over time.
Consider diverting any windfalls you encounter toward reducing what you borrow in the first place– or paying it back ahead of schedule. This can go for things like tax returns or holiday gifts, but it can also mean working while you are in school to offset how much you must borrow to begin with.
Is loan forgiveness going to be a potential option for me?
Depending on the kind of career you pursue, the student loans you borrow may be eligible for a student loan forgiveness program. If you find that your profession or employer will be eligible for eventual loan forgiveness, you may plan your student borrowing differently.
Even if you are eligible for a forgiveness program, you will need to make payments until that forgiveness kicks in (sometimes years down the road).
Are there other ways I can fund my education or reduce the cost?
Student loans can be a great way of making higher education possible. That said, they should also be a last option once you’ve considered other ways of funding your education or otherwise reducing the amount you’ll need to borrow. Be sure to explore:
- Scholarships and grants (academic, athletic, school-specific, special interests)
- Work-study programs or employment while you are in school
- College savings plans (including 529 plans)
Is the school I am choosing a good value for my needs?
Considering this question is possibly the best way of keeping your educational costs down. When evaluating whether a college is a good value, think about the cost of tuition– but don’t stop there.
Consider the average aid package granted to students at that school, and also think about what kinds of benefits may be available such as the support of a campus career center or a well-connected alum network.
What parts of the college experience are important to me?
This question can help you to decide what areas are worth splurging versus saving on when selecting a school. If campus life and extracurricular involvement are key to your satisfaction with the college experience, springing for on-campus room and board may be worth the expense. If you are borrowing to cover these costs, you will eventually need to repay the money.
Maybe you don’t mind knocking out your general education credits online– such an approach could save you money on the first year or two of a degree program. Customizing how and where you spend on the college experience can help you to focus on what is worth borrowing for without losing sight of your financial goals after graduation.
The bottom line
Whether or not you should take out student loans depends mostly on your career path, financial situation and school. If you already have college costs covered through free money like scholarships and grants, you may not need to take out student loans.
For most students in the U.S., loans are necessary to attain a postsecondary degree. The best thing you can do in this scenario is to minimize your costs as much as possible and create a clear plan for repayment after you graduate.