An overwhelming majority of parents want their kids to go to college (94%, according to the Pew Research Center). When it comes to paying for it, 81% of parents plan to contribute, but 79% are very or somewhat worried about having enough money to help pay, according to a 2013 study from Discover Student Loans.
There’s a lot of debate over whether parents should foot the bill, but no matter the family’s strategy, it’s a good idea to make sure the parents and the student are on the same page. No one wants to be blindsided with the responsibility of coming up with tens of thousands of dollars for tuition.
Kristen can tell you what that feels like: “I was terrified,” said the 2011 graduate of a public East Coast university, who said that for as long as she could remember, her parents had said they’d pick up the tab for college.
She graduated with more than $100,000 in student loan debt.
A Plan That Fell Apart
Price wasn’t a priority for Kristen or her parents when she started looking at colleges, so it didn’t factor into her decision to go to school outside of New Jersey, her home state. The out-of-state cost at her school of choice was about $28,000 a year when she started and just more than $32,000 her final year.
She said her family’s financial situation was always good, but when Kristen was in eighth grade, her parents went through a costly divorce that wiped out the money they set aside for college. By the time college rolled around, they didn’t have the savings, and Kristen said she didn’t get much in the way of aid because of her father’s high income.
The solution — at least, the way Kristen remembers it being presented — was for Kristen to take out student loans, that her parents would help her repay.
“They said, ‘We’ll help you make your loan payments. It’ll be easier because we don’t have pay a lot at once.’ I never thought further than that,” Kristen said. “I should have been like, ‘Wait, this doesn’t make any sense.’”
She questioned the proposal but believed her parents when they said this was the way to go. She took out federal loans, and her parents co-signed private ones, and through her first years of college, she thought her parents were making payments. In 2008, her dad was laid off multiple times.
“It was my junior year when they said they haven’t been paying,” she said. “They said, ‘We’re in really big trouble.’”
Grappling With the Truth
Halfway through college, Kristen was scared about the debt she already racked up and what lay ahead, but she also didn’t do much about it.
“I was just in denial. I had no idea how much I would be making out of college,” she said. Throughout her time applying for loans, before and after she knew her parents weren’t paying, she didn’t grasp the magnitude of her debt or understand what other options she had. “I just wasn’t aware — I didn’t research it on my own, I didn’t think about the ramifications.”
She graduated with a communications degree and has been able to afford her loan payments. Her parents have told her they’ll help if they are ever able, but she’s been doing it on her own. Despite her frustration with them, she is on good terms with her parents. She knows they intended to pay, but once her parents finances started going downhill, paying for college wasn’t realistic anymore.
“I think I do hold a little bit of resentment,” she said. “I don’t know if they were so much lying to me as they were in as much denial as I was.”
In light of the situation, her younger sister chose to go to community college and avoid loans. Her 21-year-old brother is not in college.
A Budget Dominated by Debt
There’s no sugar-coating it: Kristen’s situation is bad. Even with income-based repayment for her federal loans, she has a $1,000-a-month student loan payment. That’s a third of her monthly budget.
At the same time, she has a job (she works at a marketing firm in Houston), she’s never missed a loan payment, and she has been able to live on a tight budget.
“I’m not struggling as much as some people,” she said. “I’m pretty lucky I can make my payments.”
The only other debt she has is a car payment, and for the moment, her goal is to improve her credit. She applied for loan consolidation once but was denied, so she’s focused on getting a better credit score. The best thing she can do is make her payments on time and refrain from taking on additional debt, and she should be able to watch her credit score improve by tracking it using free tools like those available through Credit.com.
Ask her what she would have done if she could go back in time, and she’s got quite a list: different school, different major, more focus on career planning — pretty much anything that would have helped her avoid the debt she has. In retrospect, was her education worth the debt? “No,” she said. “I don’t think so.”
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