How to Avoid 30 Years of College Loan Debt

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Paying Back College Loans

Student debt has topped .5 trillion in the US, and many are concerned about their ability to both pay for college and cope with loans after graduation.

But it isn’t as dire as some imagine. If a person’s total debt at graduation is less than their starting salary, they should be able to repay their student loans in 10 years or less, Mark Kantrowitz from told Financial Sense Newshour.

However, when total debt exceeds annual income, the graduate will need an alternate repayment plan, such as extended repayment or income-driven repayment, and instead of it taking 10 years to repay, the debt will probably be around for 20 or even 30 years.

“The average starting salary for a college graduate is about ,000, so most people are graduating with an affordable amount of debt,” Kantrowitz said. “About one in six students are graduating with excessive debt, and in some cases that's more a matter of choice than of necessity.”

Reducing “Sticker Shock”

There are so many options that will affect debt levels. Students may choose to go to a more expensive college, and they may choose to major in a field that pays less.

An in-state public college is usually the cheapest option, but it isn’t always the case that state schools end up being the cheapest after financial aid is taken into consideration.

Also, choice of field of study is a big factor, and for those choosing to become a teacher, there is teacher loan forgiveness and public service loan forgiveness as options for paying off debt.

“The first thing you need to do when looking at a college cost is to not focus on the sticker price, but on the net price after grants and scholarships and other money that doesn't need to be repaid is subtracted from the total,” Kantrowitz said.

For those who qualify for need-based financial aid, schools with ‘no loans’ financial aid policies will provide financial aid packages that don’t include any loans. Instead, they offer grants that lead to a much lower net price, Kantrowitz said, sometimes even lower than at an in-instate public college.

How to Plan Ahead

For some students, it might make sense to pursue community college or an associate’s degree over a 4-year school or a bachelor’s degree. But each student’s needs will be different.

Those with bachelor’s degrees still end up earning the most after graduating, but trade schools and specialized training can also lead to high-paying jobs. Specialized programs and coding boot camps are all worth looking into.

There are tons of resources for those just starting out, and websites such as,, and can help identify where demand is for various types of employment. Medicine, science, technology engineering and mathematics are great options that are likely to be in demand when it comes to majors that earn large salaries.

Websites such as,,, and many others focus on planning and paying for college, Kantrowitz stated, and those can be good resources.

“My No. 1 bit of advice is to get started earlier because it is like speaking a foreign language with an alphabet soup of acronyms like FAFSA, EFC, and SAR,” Kantrowitz said. “The sooner you start, the more accustomed you'll get to the language and understand all the factors that affect your ability to pay for college. … Use the rule of thumb that your total debt should be less than your annual starting salary to identify a reasonable amount of debt.”

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