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Dr. Bonnie Snyder Headshot

Forget Driver's Licenses: Student Loan Debt Is the New Teen Rite of Passage

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For generations, one of the most eagerly anticipated rites of passage for teenagers was getting their first driver's license. I still remember it as one of the most exciting days of my entire life. Finally, I was free and could go anywhere I wanted on my own!

Today, teens seem to have a new rite of initiation and passage that is more likely to clip their wings than offer them freedom: massive student loan debt.

The New York Times is now reporting that an astonishing 94 percent of bachelor's degree students borrow money -- up from 45 percent in 1993. Oddly enough, during the same time frame, the number of teens with driver's licenses has fallen dramatically. It's probably just as well: with the levels of student debt these young people face, they won't be able to afford cars any time soon.

There are many calls for reform of the student loan industry, but until any of these hoped-for plans materializes, every family is on its own in preventing a personal student loan disaster. There's no silver bullet, aside from winning the lottery, but here are some ways to limit the student debt load in your family:

Choose your college responsibly. Students want to feel that they should have unfettered freedom to select any undergraduate institution they want, but they won't feel free for long if their future is tied down with the shackles of enormous debt.

Real freedom comes from respecting your financial limits. Choose a college you can afford, and don't get your heart set on one school until all the financial aid offers have come in and you have had a chance to compare them all. Evaluate each financial aid offer based on the amount of debt it requires you to assume. It is essential that you get an estimate of anticipated debt for all four years of college--not just Year One-- since loans and tuition will predictably rise each year. If they don't provide you with this information, call the financial aid office and ask for it.

If it still seems unaffordable, be willing to consider going the community college-transfer route. Transferring in is becoming easier at many college and universities as more students are forced to drop out due to financial reasons. Schools want to fill those empty spaces.

Choose an in-demand major. I'm all for students studying poetry, ceramics, or advanced puppetry ... if they can afford to pay for it without using debt. If you need to borrow money to finance a degree, however, then you are taking a financial risk and must be realistic about the rewards you can expect to receive from your degree to cover it. Choose a major with a high likelihood of employment and sufficient future salary to manage the repayments. Otherwise, you could end up like the sadder-but-wiser students highlighted in the Times story, many of whom majored in low-demand liberal arts fields and are now underemployed.

Pay as you go. Instead of "Buy Now, Pay Later," which is the student loan model, you could pay for your tuition as you attend school by working part-time jobs. Yes, it will slow down your graduation, but you would simultaneously build a stronger resume with real-world experience, unlike non-working undergrads. This will make you a more desirable job applicant in the end.

Look into two-year, career-training options. Now that college is no guarantor of high-paying jobs, why not look into preparing for the types of hands-on jobs that can't be outsourced? There are many appealing options on this less-traveled road. Remember: they can't cut your hair in China, clean your teeth in India, or fix your broken furnace overseas, which makes these some of the most secure jobs in the current economy.

Before committing to a four-year program, be sure to investigate all the career training possibilities available to you on the more affordable two-year route. Visit upcoming career fairs at your local community or technical college. You might be pleasantly surprised by the possibilities and the cost.

Wait until you are 24 to attend college. Not everyone wants to, or should, attend college straight out of high school. If a student waits until age 24 or older to enroll in college, (s)he will be able to apply for financial aid as an independent student, which would eliminate the parents' income from consideration in calculating the aid award. This can be an enormous saving for many families, with the added benefit that the student will be more mature when attending school.