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How to Avoid College Debt: Now Is The Time To Be Honest

Last year, Cyanna S. received offers to attend a handful of public and private four-year colleges. In her financial aid packages, she noticed scholarship offers alongside information on available loans to cover the additional costs. During a difficult conversation with her parents, she realized that attending her first-choice private college meant accumulating more than $50,000 of debt in two years.

“My mom has always been adamant that she doesn’t want me to have debt after college. I never really understood how debt could impact my life until I moved out on my own,” says Cyanna. Ultimately, Cyanna realized it made more sense to go to a community college and then transfer to a four-year college to study nursing.

“Since starting community college, I’ve matured more. I’ve made friends and connections, and, best of all, I haven’t had to take on any debt,” she adds.

How to Avoid College Debt

Honest dialogue is key

While it may seem early, the teen years are the time for families to begin discussing how to avoid college debt. Often it makes sense to play the long game and choose the institution that can give you a great education with the least amount of debt, especially if your student is planning on further education after an undergraduate degree.

“Talking about possible debt after college with your student is a difficult conversation,” says Nancy Berk, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of College Bound and Gagged: How to Help Your Kid Get Into a Great College Without Losing Your Savings, Your Relationship, or Your Mind.

“Over the years, I’ve witnessed that some parents feel shameful about not being able to afford the full cost of college,” says Berk. “But most people can’t easily afford to cover these costs.” For the 2019-20 school year, the average cost of tuition and fees for private colleges was $41,426. The average is $11,260 for students at public colleges, and $27,120 for out-of-state students at state schools, according to a U.S. News & World Report annual survey.

Consider community college

Parents might not realize this, but community colleges are high-quality, low-cost opportunities, says Megan O’Bryan, vice president of development at Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) in Ohio. O’Bryan is also president of the Cuyahoga Community College Foundation.

“The quality of the programs we offer here, as well as the facilities, are on par with the four-year institutions in our community—at a fraction of the price,” says O’Bryan, who notes that Tri-C has the lowest tuition per credit hour in the state of Ohio: about $114 dollars per credit hour.

And, just like four-year colleges, community colleges can also offer scholarship aid. For example, Tri-C has more than 130 unique scholarship funds available to students. In the 2018-2019 academic year, Tri-C and the Tri-C Foundation awarded $3.3 million worth of scholarships to more than 2,700 students.

One Tri-C scholarship opportunity is the Honors Program Fellowship for students with a 3.5 or higher GPA who will be first-time, full-time college students upon enrollment. During the last academic year, Tri-C awarded this scholarship to 66 students. One of those students is currently enrolled in Tri-C’s nationally recognized Jazz Studies program.

“His goal is to transfer to the Berklee College of Music after his two years at Tri-C. Since our Jazz Studies program is aligned with Berklee’s program, he’ll be able to seamlessly transfer,” says O’Bryan.

Berk offers this advice for families to tuck away as they ponder the college options. “I’ve learned that a higher price tag doesn’t guarantee happiness in anything in life, whether it’s a new outfit or a college.”

Nancy Schatz Alton

Nancy Schatz Alton is the co-author of two holistic health care guides, The Healthy Back Book and The Healthy Knees Book. She lives in Seattle with her husband, a teen, a tween, and two Havanese dogs. For more, check her blog or Facebook

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