Help Students Avoid Student Debt and Prepare for the Job Market

Changes to the FAFSA, the ever-rising cost of higher education, and a lackluster job market means many students will be saddled with debt they can't repay. What can you do to help?

It’s graduation season, and as your seniors walk across the stage and into the next phase of their lives, you can only hope that their future turns out to be as bright and successful as they’ve dreamt it will be. Those who have worked hard and are going off to college are already on the right track. But unfortunately, the ever-rising cost of higher education and an increasingly competitive job market may dampen their spirits over the next four years.

Last year, the FAFSA instituted several changes that can make it more difficult for students to qualify for federal student aid. The maximum family income allowed for students to qualify for an Estimated Family Contribution (EFC) of zero dropped from $31,000 to $23,000. Students must now have a high school diploma or its equivalent (a GED or homeschooling) in order to receive federal student aid. And beginning in 2014, students with two parents who are not married but live together and students with same-sex parents will be required to list both parents on their FAFSA application, which could reduce the amount of aid they will receive because any resultant additional income will be used to calculate their EFC.

These changes to the FAFSA, along with the high cost of tuition and less-than-stellar job prospects, may translate intodebt students taking on more debt than they’ll be capable of repaying. I was recently watching Melissa Harris-Perry, who offered some frightening statistics for this year’s college graduates, 70% of whom will graduate with more than $35,000 in student debt. And while some might argue that student loans can be “good debt” because getting an education makes one more employable and commands a higher paycheck, it must be noted that there were 284,000 college graduates working at minimum wage jobs in 2012.

Many students are taking out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans in hopes of landing a job with a pay scale that will be commensurate with their monthly loan payments. But when they start waltzing into interviews with their supreme confidence and expensive diplomas and maybe even an internship or two, they discover that the jobs for which they are qualified are either being given to applicants who are even more highly qualified than they are, or the positions won’t pay nearly enough to cover their expenses, especially if they’re factoring in things like getting their first cars and apartments. And, even more disheartening, some students will find that there simply aren’t any jobs available in their respective fields.

But they shouldn't lose hope. Bleak as this all may sound, I do believe there are ways you can help your students avoid a similar fate:

  • Above all else, you can teach them to resist the urge to take on mountains of student debt in their pursuit of a college education. Encourage them to search diligently for scholarships and grants before taking out either federal or private loans, both of which can be all too easy to sign off on but difficult to pay back.
  • Help them create college lists with financially feasible options—there are so many excellent state schools that offer a top-notch education with a reasonable price tag, and private schools with enticing scholarship opportunities.
  • Regardless of the schools they settle on, make sure your students understand the importance of picking their majors wisely, giving careful consideration to how much they’ll need to take out in student loans. A degree in filmmaking at a pricey private school may not substantiate decades of debt, and, on the other hand, a degree in aerospace engineering won’t necessarily be enough to automatically procure a high-paying job offer. They should research the job market before they even begin their studies.
  • You can also advise your students to make connections while they’re in college. Once they graduate, they’ll find that limiting their job search to the Internet and the classifieds can result in a lot of dead-ends and dashed hopes. Networking with professors and industry professionals and taking on volunteer work, internships, and summer or part-time job opportunities can pay huge dividends when it’s time to go on interviews.

I am and always will be an adamant proponent of higher education, but I can certainly understand why some of today’s high schoolers and college students might be discouraged about their future, or even disenchanted with the idea of going to college altogether. But with your guidance and encouragement, they may be able to avoid some of the pitfalls that others have faced, change the tide of financial struggle, and go on to achieve all that they hope to and more.

What are some of the ways in which you help your students avoid student debt and prepare for their job search? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah is a former writer and senior editor for Carnegie and CollegeXpress. She holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in Journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times, she has been an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. 


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