(BPT) - While only a fortunate few students can expect a free college education by winning full academic or athletic scholarships, everyone can take advantage of a combination of academic aid, grants, fellowships, work-study and student loans to pay for a four-year degree, says Peter Gayle, a vice president for Prudential Advisors. Unfortunately, many prospective students and their families often don't know where to look.
With student debt increasingly becoming a long-term burden on graduates and families, adds Gayle, it's never been more important to minimize the out-of-pocket expenses to put a student through college - and reduce reliance on student loans.
To put the weight of student debt in perspective, The Federal Reserve Bank of New York noted that in 1995, 54 percent of graduates had loans averaging $11,491. It's more recent data in 2015 showed 71 percent of graduates joined the workforce with student debt averaging slightly more than $35,000. What's more, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York estimates 25 percent of those who owe federal student loans are delinquent or in default.
The good news is that anyone willing to put in the time can likely find programs that help foot the bill - helping to reduce the need to take out loans - so a student's education won't break the budget or jeopardize a financial future. According to Gayle, families can take a few initial steps before choosing a school:
* Learn how the financial aid process works and get the most out of options that don't need to be repaid.
* Understand each school's actual net price - after financial aid - and set realistic expectations, choosing from the most affordable institutions.
* Explore types of financial aid, including grants, work study programs and scholarships; examine the specific types of aid available per school and find out how much of a family's demonstrated financial need each school will cover.
* Understand the kinds of loans available, including a variety of federal loans and private loans, which may be used to fill any financing gaps after exhausting other options.
* Understand how parents' 'available income' is used to calculate how much parents are expected to contribute to their child's education, especially for federal financial aid purposes.
Several guides, including Prudential Financial's www.prudential.com/payingforcollege, can help families take a carefully considered approach to financing a college education while safeguarding a student's long-term financial future, including the ability to save for retirement.
For families that must use student loans, the federal government is making it easier to understand how to borrow, process applications and repay loans through new online tools. Since 2010, all new federal loans, except Federal Perkins Loans, have been issued through the U.S. Department of Education, which offers information about borrowing and repaying loans.
There are multiple options to repay federally funded student loans, which generally require repayments to start six or nine months after a student graduates, leaves school or drops to half-time enrollment. A few popular choices for repayment include types of income-driven plans, which calculate payments based on a borrower's ability to repay. One catch: It's critical to re-certify income and family size annually to avoid huge monthly payment increases.
When debt becomes too burdensome, some loan programs offer forgiveness through public service, federal government employment, and options like teaching in underserved school districts.
Private loans are trickier since there is no standard: Interest rates and repayment terms vary from lender to lender. It's also worth considering the need for life insurance to cover the full loan balance to aid co-signers or beneficiaries in the event of the borrower's death, says Gayle. Financial advisors would be well-equipped to help explore this and other options, Gayle notes.
Employers are also beginning to offer employee student debt benefits to put their employees on a course for financial security. At Prudential Financial, for example, new employees hired through the company's campus recruitment program beginning in January 2017 could earn an incentive of up to $5,000 toward paying off student loans after one year of service. Other companies match student debt payments with contributions to employee retirement savings plans.
Studies show college education can be worth the price. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that students who attend college can earn nearly twice as much over their lifetimes as those with only a high school diploma. But with college tuitions continuing to rise, families must find the most effective way to finance a child's college education to avoid jeopardizing their ability to save for retirement.
"Prudential Advisors" is a brand name of The Prudential Insurance Company of America and its subsidiaries located in Newark, NJ.