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Study Up on College Loans Before Learning About Debt the Hard Way

Good debt? College graduates earn more over their lifetimes than high school graduates, but they're using greater percentages of their incomes to pay off loans.
Good debt? College graduates earn more over their lifetimes than high school graduates, but they're using greater percentages of their incomes to pay off loans. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

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By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, April 24, 2008

There's been quite a bit of news lately about how, as the credit crisis continues, it may be more difficult for some families to get student loans.

I'll be honest. If college students and their parents have a harder time getting loans, that's a good thing. Perhaps now more people will stop and consider the long-term implications of taking on so much of this so-called good debt to fund a college education.

The College Board likes to highlight in its annual survey of college costs that over a working lifetime, a college-educated person can earn considerably more than someone with just a high school diploma.

But many of those college grads are now using an increasingly higher percentage of their incomes to pay down student loan debts -- for at least a decade after they've left school. Add at least another decade if the student attends a pricey, private college.

As college financial aid award letters arrive and you sit down with your child, consider the dilemmas faced by some of the people who wrote to me.

South Carolina resident Brenda Nixon is having trouble paying back about $58,000 in undergraduate and graduate student loans.

"Are there any programs that you know of to assist borrowers with student loans?" she asked. "My forbearances and deferments have all been exhausted."

As graduation season approaches, I'll get more questions like this one. That's when it hits people that they are struggling to pay back the thousands of dollars they borrowed. Many can't even handle the pint-size loan payments made possible by extending the loans out for as much as 30 years.

While there are some loan forgiveness programs, they're available generally for people such as teachers or doctors who are willing to work in underserved and low-income areas.

If you're a federal government employee, the Federal Student Loan Repayment Program allows agencies to make payments on certain workers' federally backed loans, up to $10,000 a year for a total maximum benefit of $60,000. To find out more, go to http://www.opm.gov/oca/pay/studentloan.

Of course there are catches to getting the cash. First, the agency has to set up the program. The federal employee has to sign a service agreement to stay with the agency for at least three years, and the loan repayment is taxable income.

If you volunteer for certain programs, a portion of your debt may be forgiven. For example, AmeriCorps volunteers may be eligible to receive up to $4,725 in exchange for a year of service through its Segal AmeriCorps Education Award.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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