Figuring out how to pay for college can be a nightmare: there is so much information to sift through, so many different funding options, and constantly changing political information on the availability and management of student loans. This is a significant problem because college students will be in repayment for years, and this may have a significant impact on their post-graduation income, affecting both their career and personal life decisions. As Sheryl Nance-Nash pointed out on Forbes.com,
“Student loans are one of life’s biggest financial entanglements, yet they are sorely misunderstood. Many students couldn’t tell you if they have private or public loans. All they know is that they owe, owe, owe.”
In June, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau published thousands of comments from student loan borrowers that reflect their confusion, fear, and anger over the lack of clear and consistent information and the often byzantine maze of regulations and qualifications that affect financial aid status and repayment options. For example, one comment from a married couple struggling with loan repayment powerfully reflects the reality of how student loan repayment can affect an individual’s future:
“We’ve decided not to have a family because we can’t come up with a way that we’d ever be able to afford it. We also postponed our wedding an entire year. We’re hoping nothing happens to our cars, or that either one of us gets really sick, as we don’t have any savings or an emergency fund. We won’t be able to buy a house, ever.”
How can new college students avoid this plight?
The best way to avoid a student loan catastrophe is to get the most up-to-date, accurate information about your options before you borrow-even before you decide what college to attend, actually, because that single decision will determine how much you need to spend on college and therefore how much you will need to borrow. But there’s a ton of information online; how can you know which site provides the most useful and accurate data? In addition to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) site and the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Aid website, there are some blogs that can provide students with crucial updates and guides that will simplify and streamline the information-gathering process:
- The Choice: Billed as the site that “demystifies college admissions and financial aid,” this New York Times blog covers a variety of topics, including many articles written by college students themselves. While more opinion-based posts appear on this site, and it does not often include any step-by-step guides, it’s a useful blog for keeping up with issues that may affect the college admission or financial aid and student loan application process.
- Student Loan Network: This is a private website not affiliated with any federal program, and it provides easily organized information on aid programs, public and private loans, and news about regulations as well as tips for better financial aid management. For example, recent posts advised students on “College Financing Resources for Veterans and Military Families” and new scholarship search techniques.
- Ask Heather Jarvis: This blog is by a student loan and financial aid expert “for student loan borrowers and the people who love them.” Jarvis is a Duke University Law School graduate and member of the bar at the United States Supreme Court, as well as the fourth circuit federal court and the state of North Carolina. She regularly publishes updates on federal regulations regarding student loans and even provides inexpensive online courses for financial aid professionals to keep them up-to-date with new procedures. Of special interest to students if is the Forum section of the blog, where Jarvis answers questions submitted by readers about their student loan dilemmas.
- Student Advisor: A more general blog that deals with a variety of student and college-related topics, including how to choose a college, this site offers a great series of downloadable guides, such as the Free Student Loan Guide and the Free FAFSA Guide, to help you navigate through the federal application for financial aid. The “College Resource Center” provides information on scholarships and financial aid.
- CollegeScholarships.org: This site offers a plethora of information about the many scholarships that students may be eligible for, including athletic scholarships, those offered based on major, ethnic or racial identity, gender, political and religious affiliations, and just about any other category you can think of. But it also provides useful information on how to complete the entire college application process, including how to write admissions essays and qualify for tuition reimbursement. I particularly appreciate the “Know Your Rights” post, because most students are not aware of their legal rights with regard to financial aid.
- Yale Law Blog’s Financial Aid site: Though many might assume that the information here is only relevant to law or other graduate students, that is far from the case. Instead, this blog provides a wealth of legally-sound information and advice about issues relevant to all students, including warnings about how to avoid scholarship or loan scams and updates on how recent legislation might affect your student loan eligibility or repayment plan, such as the new “Pay as you earn” repayment option.
Do not forget to also check your college’s financial aid webpage, as many schools provide comprehensive information about school-specific aid programs, deadlines, and other requirements. Consult with librarians, financial advisers, and make sure that any question you have is answered thoroughly and does not contradict other information. If it does, pursue it further and get confirmation. Student loans and financial aid have become a significant factor in the financial health of a student’s future, so it’s important to start out with accurate and comprehensive information.