My little cousin just went to her senior prom. She lives in another state so I could only enjoy the moment on Facebook and Instagram. But it got me thinking about how I felt in that moment 20 years ago when I had to make the biggest financial decision of my young life. I had to choose a college that was cost effective and give me the best job opportunities upon graduation.
I was blessed with multiple college acceptance letters but the financial aid packages offered from each school varied widely. One school gave me a full scholarship, but it was only guaranteed for my freshmen year. Others masked their packages in loans. Upon first glance, schools appeared to have given me a full ride but after reading closer the package was stuffed with loans. How was I expected to make the right financial choice at 17?
Who knows why college has to be so expensive. If you make all the right choices, after four years, you will end up with a degree, minimal debt and your dream job that will set you up for success for the rest of your life. But one miss-step can set you back for decades to come. I know of many people who have kids in college but are still paying off on their own student loans.
So just how can you pick a college and minimize student loans? Today I’m sharing common sense tips that can help you make the right choice for you and your family.
How to Pick a College and Minimize Student Loans
- If you do not plan on moving away from your home state after college, consider going to a reputable in-state college where you can take advantage of in-state college tuition. Is it worth going to a fancy big name private school if you can get a better deal at an in-state school? I think not! Plus, if you plan on sticking around, companies will be familiar with your school anyway. After a few years of work experience, the school you attend actually won’t matter.
- Read your financial aid package carefully – As I mentioned earlier, every school that I applied to seemed to give me a lot of money, but upon further review, many schools gave most of their money in the form of loans. Look for the word GRANT when reviewing your packages. I chose my school because besides being my first choice, 90% of my money came in the form of grants.
- If you are really unsure about what you want to do after school, try going to community college first and then transfer to a four year school afterwards. I am still confused as to why and how young people are supposed to know what they want to do for the rest of their life at 18. Most of my friends are in a completely different fields from what they studied in college. I feel that the first two years when you are just doing core classes might as well be free. Since it can’t, then it is worth considering a junior college while you are figuring everything out.
- If you can, start paying down on loans while in school – but be warned, don’t let that job impact your grades. I have a friend that did this in school. I remember senior year he said he had been paying off his loans the entire time we were in school. I remember thinking, why in the world did I not think of that! It literally never crossed my mind. Even if he didn’t completely pay off his loans, he saved thousands on interest bringing down the principal of the loan before the interest started to accrue.
- If you get a “refund check” from financial aid, please return it. Now, I’ve never received a refund check because my college was WAY too expensive, but I know many people who have. They have used the money for trips, clothes, food… you name it! But the problem is that it is not free money. I’m not sure why it is called a refund check because it is not like you are getting your money back. It is just another loan that will take you years to pay back.
- Pick the school that has the highest job placement for YOUR chosen field. If your school is known for its great engineering program, but you want to be a financial accountant, is that the best place for you? You want to set yourself up to get the right internships while you are in school, to make finding a job after graduation as easy as possible. This may not minimize your student loans, but it will help you pay off your loans quicker.
- If the average salary for your field is $50K, please do not go to school that will cost you $70K per year. I cannot stress this point enough. I have a close family friend in college. I remember her telling me the jobs that she thought she would be able to get after graduation. These jobs pay about $30-40K a year, while her school is about $50K a year. Again, this will not minimize loans but at least you’ll be able to afford your payments.
Where you go to college matters. But the amount you take out in loans matters just as much. Try not get caught up in the hype around the name of the school. You want to go to a school that allows you to get the best education for your needs, provides you with the best post graduation job prospects and won’t break the bank.