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post high school ed: the money trap

It seems almost every day I see something in the newspaper or on social media about the irresponsibility and immaturity of Millennials. They build up a mountain of debt in college loans and then find themselves back home after graduation, either jobless or disappointed that their meager earnings can’t buy their independence. We elders blame their sense of entitlement for the pickle our Millennials have gotten themselves into, but, in truth, we have failed them by not drilling down on the realities of spending, borrowing, and saving - beginning with their college education costs. Though I’m now retired as a high school guidance counselor, my colleagues continue to work with college bound students who they know are destined for massive student debt, despite gentle caution that they might want to consider other options. The most uninformed are the “first generation” students. These scholars are frequently not only the first in the family to go to college, but also the first to graduate from high school. They’re generally low income, with grades and test scores good enough to get them accepted to college, but not so outstanding that they receive ample scholarships and grants. These are kids whose parents are so proud and excited that their children have the opportunity to achieve their dreams, they give little thought to or don’t understand the consequences of their children’s future student loan debt. To them, financial aid means free money, and indeed, students do qualify for grants, but their financial aid package also includes loans with interest, that, depending on the cost of the school, graduates will be paying back for decades. Then, there are the middle income students who have convinced their parents that a private university is their only option for a quality education. There are indeed some advantages to private education, primarily that students feel more a part of campus life. In addition, small classes mean more individual attention to the student’s educational needs, upping the odds of obtaining a degree. However, for those who simply can’t afford the massive debt that results from obtaining a degree at a private school, a far better option is to attend a community college while living at home for two years, and then go on to a public university. Finally, there are the students who have been convinced, often by representatives at their district’s college visitation night, that their best choice is a private, for-profit college. These schools usually focus on some type of specialized technology and offer the student the option of obtaining a degree in a shorter period of time. My own son got sucked into this vortex when he was in his late twenties. The school promised ample financial aid. But the black and white debt payment calendar showing the massive monthly payments he would be making for years wasn’t presented to him until shortly before graduation. He would never earn enough money, especially at entry level pay, to make these monthly payments and achieve independence. He considered default, but his father and I believe in meeting one’s obligations, so we took care of part of it to make it more manageable. Most graduates in our country don’t have that backup option, however. The result? 1.2 trillion dollars in crippling student debt, most of which will never be paid back. Unquestionably, college costs are soaring, especially in Texas after our legislature deregulated tuition costs and decreased the amount of state aid to low income Texas students. Planning ahead is important, but loans are almost inevitable. Colleges are not supposed to be shady used car salesmen. Along with the student’s financial aid award letter, every college financial aid office should include a debt payment calendar showing students exactly what they will be expected to pay, monthly and yearly, to satisfy their college loan debt BEFORE they enroll. Then each family can make an informed decision. It’s the ethical thing to do. Maybe there should be a law.

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