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Most people have no idea how much debt they’ll need to afford college

A graduate at Northwest Florida State College's commencement wears her cap on Saturday, May 10, 2014, along with other graduates in Niceville, Fla. (AP Photo/Northwest Florida Daily, Nick Tomecek)

Figuring out the best way to pay for college can be overwhelming even for the savviest families. A new survey suggest many people have no idea where to start.

Almost half (48 percent) of the people surveyed by the Credit Union National Association, a national trade association for credit unions, said they don't know how many loans their children will need to take out to pay for college. About a quarter of families were also clueless on the total dollar amount their children would need to borrow over the years.

Here's the perception of college debt: In a survey of 717 parents that is going to be released next week, the association polled people on their understanding of what it takes to pay for college. About 22 percent guessed that they would borrow between $10,000 and $25,000 and another 22 percent estimated they would need to borrow more than $25,000 but less than $50,000. About 6 percent guessed they would need to borrow less than $10,000 and on the high end, 13 percent guess they would need to borrow between $50,000 and $75,000 and roughly 6.5 percent estimated their debt loads would top $100,000.

And here's the reality: the average college student graduating this year will walk away with $26,500 in student loan debt, according to an estimate from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

That debt load averaged $25,500 for someone earning a bachelor's degree from a public four-year college; at a private nonprofit four-year college it was $32,300, according to the Project On Student Debt, a nonprofit research group. At four-year for-profit colleges, students left with an average of $39,950. And the total debt burden has been growing over the years, tripling from about $360 million in 2004 to more than $1 trillion in 2013.

As our colleagues at GovBeat reported, those debt loads are heaviest in many Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, along with some states in the West and South like California and Florida.

Several reports suggest college graduates are being bogged down by that debt. People with student loan debt are less likely to own homes than people without college debt.

And a report released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in April found that about one in three college graduates who are paying off student loans are more than 90 days late on paying their debt.

Still, families are optimistic the investment will pay off: 86 percent of parents surveyed by CUNA said they believed their children would land high paying jobs after graduating.

Jonnelle Marte is a reporter covering personal finance. She was previously a writer for MarketWatch and the Wall Street Journal.



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