Borrowing to pay for college is commonplace today as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that more than 60 percent of America's 20 million college students rely on student loans to finance their education. A college student today graduates with an average of $24,301 in student loan debt, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, which also projects that there are approximately 37 million Americans who have outstanding loan accounts.
While many students believe that loans are worth the investment in their future, a growing number of borrowers are defaulting on their student loan debt. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimates that about 5.4 million student loan borrowers have at least one past-due student loan account.
Economists and policymakers alike worry about the long-term impact on recent graduates burdened with loan debt - many of whom may face challenges down the road in securing financing to buy a house or start a business.
To help parents and students learn more about college financing, FindLaw.com, the nation's leading website for free legal information, offers a free, downloadable mini-guide on student loan debt. Here are some additional tips:
Start early. Really early - From the moment your child is born, start putting away a little bit each month toward his or her education. Use a state-run 529 plan or an IRA Coverdell account to save for college education tax-free. Regardless of when you start saving for college, it's never too late to put money aside to pay for college expenses.
Apply to colleges you can afford - Carefully weigh the costs and benefits of an expensive school to a less costly institution. Students who graduate with little or no debt may have more freedom to take career risks, such as moving to a new city or taking a low-paying internship that offers valuable work experience.
Explore financial aid options - Research and apply for all financial aid opportunities, even if you think you may not qualify. You can apply for federal student loans by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
Compare financial aid packages - As you receive acceptance packages from colleges and universities, pay close attention to the financial aid programs offered by each school to determine which offers the best option to finance your college education.
Research scholarships - Continuously apply for scholarships throughout your college years to defray expenses. Keep your eyes open for opportunities. Professors, for example, are often aware of scholarship opportunities and are an excellent source for references when applying for certain scholarships or aid packages.
Consider the job prospects for your major - Before declaring a major, research post-college career prospects. What types of jobs are people getting with the major you're interested in? How much are they making in your part of the country? For example, if you need to take out $50,000 in student loans to obtain a degree that results in a job that typically pays about $35,000 per year, you may want to rethink your major.
Understand your loans - Not all student loans are the same. Some have higher interest rates. Some offer different terms to defer payment while a student is pursuing another degree. Some allow you to start paying the interest immediately, while you're still in college, to lower the loan's overall cost. Before considering student loans from a private lender, seek information and apply for federal student loans such as Stafford, Perkins and PLUS loans. Also talk to your college to see if it offers an institutional student loan program. Private loans can come with higher interest rates and more fees, so it's best to explore your options.
Think twice, parents - Parents who co-sign for a child's loan are responsible for that debt in the event that their son or daughter can't pay it. While you may want to help your child achieve his or her dreams, don't put your retirement years in jeopardy by cosigning on expensive private loans with high interest rates. Instead, help your child start building a positive credit history in his or her teenage years, and teach kids to take financial responsibility for the debt they incur.
To learn more about student loans and student loan debt, visit FindLaw.com.