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Are student loans worth it?

Young woman studies on college campus.
Rinafoto/Shutterstock
Young woman studies on college campus.
Rinafoto/Shutterstock
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Taking out money to pay for college is a tough decision, especially if you’re worried about eventually paying it back. With tuition costs rising, students are taking on more and more debt, and those student loans could make it harder to save for other financial goals after graduation.

So, are student loans worth it? Your financial situation, how much aid you qualify for and the return on investment of your major are all factors you need to consider to determine the answer to that question.

Questions to ask yourself before borrowing

There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer to whether you should borrow money for school. However, it isn’t a decision to be taken lightly.

Before taking out loans, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What’s the ROI on my preferred major?
  • How much should I borrow?
  • What’s my repayment plan?

What’s my ROI on my preferred major?

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.

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 have federal student loans, you can follow the standard repayment plan, consolidate multiple loans into one, try an income-driven repayment plan or, depending on your career path, apply for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

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.

Additional factors to consider

Whether it’s wise to take out student loans depends on many different factors, including where you go to school, how much you need to borrow and how you’ll be able to repay your loans. Be mindful of considerations like:

  • Loans aren’t free. It’s easy to think about using money now and not giving it back for years later. But even though you don’t have to pay back the entirety of your loan when you graduate, loans are still a monthly financial commitment. And the longer you take to pay them off, the more you’ll have to pay in interest.
  • Repayment isn’t quick. The standard repayment plan for federal student loans is 10 years, and income-driven repayment plans are 20 or 25 years. Even though monthly payments might be manageable based on your income, that’s a long time to be paying for a school you only attended for a few years.
  • Your college matters. Some schools carry prestige and weight, but that usually means that they come with a hefty price tag. Expensive colleges aren’t necessarily better because they’re pricey; you can attend community colleges or take online courses to save on the cost of college.
  • You’re not guaranteed anything. Whether it’s graduation or a high-paying job, nothing about your future is guaranteed. That means if you take out six-figure loans, you have to pay them back regardless of if you have a six-figure income.
  • Loans aren’t your only option. You don’t have to only take out student loans to pay for school. Utilize all of your free resources first, including scholarships, grants and any dedicated college savings. It’s also smart to use federal student loans before moving onto private student loans, as they come with more borrower protections.

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.

However, 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 minimize your costs as much as possible and create a clear plan for repayment after you graduate.

Written by
Dori Zinn
Contributing writer
Dori Zinn has been a personal finance journalist for more than a decade. Aside from her work for Bankrate, her bylines have appeared on CNET, Yahoo Finance, MSN Money, Wirecutter, Quartz, Inc. and more. She loves helping people learn about money, specializing in topics like investing, real estate, borrowing money and financial literacy.
Edited by
Student loans editor
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