Managing Your Student Loan Debt

It’s no secret that higher education costs are on the rise. Over the last two decades, the price of attending two- and four-year public and private colleges has grown more rapidly than inflation and family income. In fact, last year the average tuition and fees for four-year public colleges rose nearly three times faster than the national inflation rate.

Consequently, students of all economic levels are borrowing money to help finance their education. According to a report issued by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, only 17% of the highest-income families borrowed for college in 1990, but that figure increased to 45% by 2000. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education reported the average amount of debt incurred by a public college graduate totaled $16,243 in 2000; those who attended private colleges incurred $17,613 in debt. For those who pursue graduate degrees, “Upwards of $100,000 [of debt] is very common, which is very scary,” says Erica Sandberg, chief financial writer and media relations manager for Consumer Credit Counseling Service in San Francisco.

As grim as such figures are, there is some good news for student borrowers. Statistics show that more education still leads to higher salaries, and the College Board estimates that over a lifetime, those with a B.A. or higher earn over $1 million more than those with a high-school diploma.

Now is a good time to get a handle on your debt since interest rates for Federal Stafford Loans have hit an all-time low. So don’t approach your loans begrudgingly. The debt you incur while studying can be an important investment in yourself.

Fern Williams White, 31, a 1999 graduate of Clark Atlanta University with an M.B.A. in finance, can attest to the benefits of investing in higher education. “I definitely don’t have any regrets about pursuing the degree; my salary has pretty much doubled,” White says. She is currently an account associate for a financial services firm in Atlanta and earns $60,000 per year.

White received her B.A. in economics from Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana, in 1994 and financed the degree with mostly scholarships and work-study, graduating with only $6,000 in student loan debt. After working for a nonprofit housing agency in Philadelphia for three years, she enrolled at Clark Atlanta in 1997 and relied heavily on loans to pay living expenses. Although she earned her M.B.A., she also racked up around $50,000 in student loan debt. “I was aware of what I was getting into,” she says. “I was thinking that within five years of [graduating], I would go back and get my M.B.A. [because] I wanted to work in the corporate world.”

White got a handle on her student loan bills soon after graduating by consolidating all of her Federal Stafford Loans. By consolidating the five payments she was making to separate lenders, White now makes a monthly payment of $391, saving her about $150 a month. “I just wanted to simplify my loans and get more favorable interest rates,” she says.

White’s consolidated Stafford Loans account