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THE COLOR OF MONEY | MICHELLE SINGLETARY

Huge debt incurred for college tuition just doesn't make the grade

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April 26, 2008

There's been a lot 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. I think 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.

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 the 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."

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

For all you parents poised to tell your kid to go to whichever college he or she wants regardless of ability to pay without large loans, consider the consequences of that choice.

A Falls Church, Va., father who participated in a recent online chat, is trying to get his kid to be reasonable. He wrote: "Help! I'm a divorced father. My daughter could go to college for free the next four years in Virginia, but she wants to attend school in New York where she will have huge debt upon graduation. She is a smart kid but doesn't understand debt."

Dad, do what my grandmother did when I won a four-year scholarship to the University of Maryland. I too desperately wanted to attend school out of state. To which my grandmother said: "No ma'am. You're going where you won't end up in debt."

I went to Maryland. To this day I'm grateful for my grandmother's tough stance. Not having student loan debt helped put me in the financial position to buy my first home about two years after graduating.

"Getting a college degree was always my dream, but if I had to do it over again, I would have probably foregone graduate school," Nixon said. "I'm not sure it was really worth it considering the cost."

Before you sign for those student loans, think about Nixon's regret.

Michelle Singletary is a columnist for The Washington Post. She can be reached at singletarym@ washpost.com.

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