College debt: Know what you can afford

March 17, 2016 | Posted in: High School

“What can I do to put you into a college today?”

Deciding on a college isn’t exactly the same as buying a new car, says Cobleskill-Richmondville Guidance Counselor Kristin Komarinski, but many of the same rules apply.

“As with any big purchase, there are a lot of things to consider,” says the guidance counselor of 17-years at Cobleskill-Richmondville High School, “and you need to set your budget ahead of time.”

This is a big one, says Komarinski, and the conversation should involve the whole family.

“This is tough because families have to be realistic about what they can afford,” she says. “I see a lot of families where the student has already applied — and gets accepted — to all of these colleges and the parents come back upset because they can’t afford any of them.”

Families sometimes can get sticker shock when looking at what will likely be one of the largest purchases in their lives.

“A lot of families get very intimidated,” says Komarinski. “They see these big numbers and think ‘I don’t make this much in a year.'”

Komarinski has helped about 600 students get into college during her career, and she says every family should consider these things during the college search:

What’s the return on investment?

“We are seeing the first generation of parents who haven’t paid back their own student loans before their kids are in college,” says Komarinski, who adds that she is now seeing many 10-year student loans being deferred to 30, 36 years.

With that in mind, it’s important to know when the degree you’re buying will begin to pay for itself.

“Some careers are more lucrative than others,” she says. “I encourage students to look at their earnings potential when considering a school.” She notes that many art and fashion careers don’t necessarily pay as well compared to the cost of the degree a student earns to be competitive in that field.

And that doesn’t mean that a student has to change their major. But perhaps they change their school.

“Very few people who go into the art or fashion fields will end up working at Tommy Hilfiger,” Komarinski says. “Many will manage clothing stores. You have to take that into account when you’re deciding on how much debt you’re going to take on.”

She recommends looking into partnerships that may exist between SUNY schools and more expensive universities, like the one that exists between SUNY Oneonta and the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Komarinski also gives some advice as to when to pay for the more “prestigious” college.

“If you’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer, you usually want your last degree to be from the more prestigious school,” she says.

Know the ‘hidden’ costs

Many families that are new to the college experience — families in which the parents haven’t gone to college, or maybe their first child is entering their senior year — may be unaware of the expenses that exist beyond tuition.

“Room and board can be very expensive,” says Komarinski. “So can things like lab fees and books, of course.”

Other things that families of new students may not take into account are meal plans, household items, fees for clubs and activities, and travel expenses for those very important trips back home to see mom and dad.

A way to mitigate some of these costs, says Komarinski, is to attend a local community college.

“The tuition will be cheaper, the credits will most likely transfer, and you can always stay home if you’re not ready to live on campus.”

You can’t negotiate, but you can look for discounts

With a college education, “the sticker price is the sticker price,” says Komarinski. She notes that SUNY schools are already priced low to be an affordable alternative to private institutions.

But if you find yourself gravitating toward a more expensive school, Komarinski suggests taking these steps beyond filling out your financial aid application:

  • Look for internships or work study. “The career services office can help you find jobs in and out of school,” she says.
  • Ask your parents to see if their employers offer scholarships. “Look everywhere,” says Komarinski. “Sometimes employers offer scholarships to children of employees, sometimes they can be offered through organizations that student’s parents belong to.”
  • Use the military. This is a tricky subject, says Komarinski. “I’ll usually only bring it up if the family does, but the military can be a good source of training and they have the GI Bill.”

Despite the financial complexities, a college degree is still a very good investment, she says. But she understands that it may not be the best route for everyone. Vocational and certificate programs, particularly in fields like welding, HVAC, and computer programming, can pay for themselves in relatively short time.

As with most things, it all comes down to the individual student. Do they need an expensive sports car or a less expensive sedan?

“We are doing a disservice if we’re not looking at students as individuals, each with their own abilities and circumstances,” she says.

Bill DeVoe has been a communications specialist with Capital Region BOCES since 2011. He is pinching pennies now to send his 13- and 8-year-olds to college.

Copyright ©2016 by Parent Today and Capital Region BOCES; Used with permission

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