Start Shopping for College Like You'd Shop for a Car

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By Jason Notte

NEW YORK -- If you'd browse and bargain while shopping for a $20,000 car, you should give serious thought to taking the same approach to a six-figure college education.

According to a report released by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in February, student loan debt has climbed to $1.16 trillion. While still a distant second to U.S. mortgage debt ($8.17 trillion), it now exceeds the total value of every U.S. car loan ($955 billion), all credit card debt ($700 billion) and all home equity loans ($510 billion). It's also just shy of all the money the Federal Reserve currently has in circulation ($1.3 trillion). If that student loan debt grows by another $33 billion, as it did last quarter, every dollar bill and handful of spare change in the country couldn't pay it.

Even worse, more than 1 in 10 (11.3 percent) student loans are past due. By comparison, the U.S. doesn't have that difficult a time paying its credit card bills, which are the second-most delinquent loans with 7.3 percent past due.

For older folks who can't see what the big deal about paying student debt is, student loan and financial advice site would like to remind you that just 20 years ago, average student loan debt was $12,759 and just 54 percent of all students graduated with debt. This year, the average student loan debt for a graduate who just received a bachelor's degree is $33,050. That debt is being carried by 70.2 percent of all graduates.

That's no minor condition. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the current unemployment rate at 5.3 percent, that jumps to 9.9 percent for people ages 20 to 24 -- or roughly the age of most recent college graduates. Only 66 percent of people that age are an active part of the workforce, compared to more than 77 percent of folks between 25 and 54. Larry Elkin, president of Palisades Hudson Financial Group in Scarsdale, New York, says throwing yourself at any one school -- or allowing a high-school student to do so -- could put you in a tough financial spot.

'Bargaining Power'

"Buying a college education is a lot like buying a car," he says. "If only one model and color will make you happy, you have no bargaining power. If you are willing to consider any vehicle that can take you where you want to go, there are many opportunities to save money. You'll get the best long-term value for your education dollar if you consider your options with an independent attitude and an open mind."

Those options aren't always in-state, either. Darla Kashian, a financial adviser with RBC Wealth Management in Minneapolis, regularly reminds clients whose children are looking to attend prestigious liberal arts school Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, that being from Minnesota actually makes them less desirable to admissions staff overwhelmed with Minnesota applicants. Instead, she encourages them to similar schools out of state, where the chances of getting financial aid are much better for students from beyond the region.

"We have a unique environment here in Minnesota where some huge number [70 percent, according to the Minnesota Office of Higher Education] of students from Minnesota who go to four-year colleges go to school in Minnesota," Kashian says. "One of the things that I do with my clients is get them to think more broadly about where opportunities exist: What are the unique talents or characteristics of a particular student that would appeal not just to the specific elite private college they're considering, but a school in that category?"

Also, don't stop at one school. Elkin advises applying to multiple colleges that would consider you an asset, and then using your position to bargain with those schools. That means skipping early decision enrollment, which assures you a spot but eliminates your haggling advantage. It also prevents a would-be student from seeming too eager and gives both students and parents some wiggle room when an offer does arrive.

"The other thing I advise clients is if their kid is set on a specific school, look at their first offer as an entry-level offer and then go back and negotiate with the college," Kashian says. "You have nothing to lose and, assuming one is well-mannered in doing that, you can likely find some additional financial aid to make up that gap."

Getting Started Early

However, most of the steps toward reducing the cost of college come well before the first applications are sent. Ideally, Kashian says, parents should start having conversations about college with their child in the ninth grade. Her potential questions, just to set the stakes early include, "What do I expect from you academically for what I'm willing to provide financially?" and "What is the contribution that you're expected to make both academically and financially to this equation?"

From there, both students and parents need to be aware that being a more desirable candidate translates to more bountiful financial aid packages. It helps if you can contribute to a school's diversity, regional or otherwise, but it also helps to bring something unique to the table that no one else does. That requires some digging and shopping around, as scholarship athletes know all too well.

"If you're a star basketball player, you're a point guard, the University of Kentucky is loaded up with point guards, and your goal is to play point guard in the NBA, you're not going to go to Kentucky because you aren't going to get playing time," Kashian says. "If you're a bassoonist and you're looking to be in the orchestra at a small liberal arts college with four bassoonists who are all freshmen and sophomores, you're not going to be appealing to them."

Once that particular skill becomes apparent, don't waste time and money waiting for it to develop if you don't have to. Elkin advises students to take advantage of advanced placement and college-level classes while they're in high school to cut down on the length of time they'd need to stay in college and the amount they'd have to pay. Kashain notes that her nephew took part in Minnesota state university system's Post-Secondary Enrollment Options program, took courses at the University of Minnesota for free during high school and earned two years' worth of college credits while paying $0. Granted, students have to make sure that such credits would transfer to the college of their choice, but it's a far less expensive option than not taking such courses or even paying for a year or two at a community college before transferring.

However, cutting that tuition bill can be costly in other ways. Kashain graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee with $19,751 in student loan debt, but finished in three-and-a-half years to minimize debt. That helped her financially, but it prevented her from taking unpaid internships or traveling abroad as her classmates did. Kashian advises parents to make sure their students are engaged in the college planning process with them. It not only improves their chances with university admissions staff, who spend a lot of time interacting with parents and all too little speaking with potential students, it also gives them a sense of the financial consequences of their decision.

Putting Education in Perspective

"You may want that particular academic and social experience of the college of your dreams, but what does it do to the rest of your dream?" she says. "It postpones homeownership, it postpones travel, it can limit the kind of choices you can make, it potentially limits other things like marriage, children and family. I want to have that conversation with 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds so they have a comprehensive understanding of what that means."

%VIRTUAL-pullquote-... students ought not take out more in student loans than they can reasonably expect to make in their first year on the job.%Elkin says that if seeing those hard numbers makes students decide to live at home while studying, work while they study or put off going to college for a year or two to save, that isn't such a terrible outcome. Kashian notes that some down time may help a student decide whether he is cut out for college or whether he'd prefer to learn a trade, enlist in military service or, in the case of the children of high-net-worth adults, spare their parents a sizable and fruitless investment. If they'd still consider college an option after all that, Kashian advises that parents treat those students like the adults they are and make sure they have a personal stake in it. If some of their own money is on the line, chances are better that they'd adhere to rules of thumb that make student loan debt a bit less onerous.

"I stress to my clients that there's nothing wrong with students loans and students should have some skin in the game, but students ought not take out more in student loans than they can reasonably expect to make in their first year on the job," Kashian says. "I'm always nervous when I hear that a student is taking out $40,000 to $50,000 in student loans and plans on being an elementary school teacher."

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.
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