TIME Parenting

How Helicopter Parents Can Help Their Kids Apply to the Right Colleges

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Courtney Keating—Getty Images

Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. in educational psychology from UC Berkeley and is a career and personal coach.

Is a private college worth the money? How about community college? Should you help edit essays?

In previous TIME articles, I used the technique of the internal debate to help readers decide whether to quit their job and, in another article, whether to marry their special someone.

Here, I use the internal debate to help parents resolve common dilemmas about college.

Parent: Of course, Leslie should go to college. These days, almost everyone does.

Alter ego: But so many articles, including one I’ve written for TIME, document how little colleges add to students’ learning and employability. Maybe there’s a better use of all that time and money.

Parent: But Leslie would kill me if I didn’t encourage him to go to college. For years, I’ve pushed college: Leslie asks, “Why do I need to learn this stuff?” and I say, “So you can get into a good college.” Leslie asks, “I hate taking that SAT prep course” and I say, “Don’t you want to get into a good college?” Leslie asks, “I’m sick of crew” and I say, “That’ll help you get into a good college.” And now I’m gonna say, “I’m not sure you should go to college”?!

Alter ego: Remember Longfellow: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” Your desire to stick with a bad idea is a lousy reason to spend all that money and have Leslie spend all those years when there may be a better option.

Parent: What better option, community college?

Alter ego: Again, Leslie would kill me. Leslie would say, “I worked like a dog so I can go to a community college while my friends are off to brand-name colleges?!”

Parent: What about the military?

Alter ego: No way.

Parent: An apprenticeship?

Alter ego: I don’t want him to end up blue-collar.

Parent: You should mean Leslie doesn’t want to end up blue-collar.

Alter ego: Right.

Parent: You and Leslie are both being elitist. There’s nothing wrong with blue-collar work. And with nearly everyone going to college, the blue-collar job market may be better than for majors in sociology. And blue-collar jobs can’t be offshored.

Alterego: Blue-collar just isn’t him…nor me. No. No.

Parent: Start a business?

Alter ego: Leslie is no Bill Gates.

Parent: Work for a businessperson or a nonprofit executive?

Alter ego: Too unlikely to be good. Besides, Leslie needs more structure. Leslie is going to college. That’s it.

Parent: Okay then. I need to focus on the college selection and admission process. When I ask Leslie, “Have you narrowed your list?” Leslie tells me, “Leave me alone. I can handle it.” But Leslie is not handling it and may end up in community college after all.

Alter ego: Plenty of people start at community college and transfer to a more prestigious college than they could have gotten into as a freshman. Besides, that would teach Leslie a lesson.

Parent: That’s too costly a lesson. Leslie is just a kid and still needs my support.

Alter ego: Support is one thing but you’re thinking about commandeering the whole process, “suggesting” the colleges to apply to, breathing down Leslie’s neck to make sure the applications are on time, making sure the essays are perfect…

Parent: You know that’s dishonest.

Alter ego: I wouldn’t write the essays. I’d just edit them.

Parent: The amount of “editing” you’d do would deceive the colleges into thinking Leslie is a better writer and thinker than he is. That’s unfair to applicants that do their own work. Maybe worse, it conveys to Leslie that it’s okay to be dishonest to get what you want.

Alter ego: But every parent “edits” their kids’ essays.

Parent: Not every parent. Many parents feel that’s unethical and many others, especially low-income ones, don’t have the wherewithal to do it, let alone to spend thousands on a private college counselor.

Alter ego: Maybe I should hire one, if only to help Leslie pick the right colleges to apply to.

Parent: The school has a college counselor to do that.

Alter ego: The counselor is overwhelmed, in charge of a zillion kids.

Parent: The differences between colleges aren’t that great anyway. It matters far more what the kid does at college than where he does it.

Alter ego: Some things do matter, like, for example, how selective the college is. Leslie gets overwhelmed in the hard classes, is better as the big fish in the less selective pond.

Parent: But Leslie’s diploma will be more respected if it’s from the most selective college possible.

Alter ego: The difference in employability is just not that great. In fact, a too-demanding college could hurt Leslie’s employability: a lower GPA, make Leslie miserable and more likely to join the almost half of kids who don’t graduate even given six years.

Parent: Fine, limit the choices to colleges at which Leslie would be a big fish.

Alter ego: Location matters. Leslie likes the warm weather here in California and would like the option of being close enough to home to have the option of coming home for the weekend.

Parent: Are you sure that’s not what you want?

Alter ego: I’m sure. Leslie is still kind of immature.

Parent: Then there’s the issue of whether the college has the major Leslie would want.

Alter ego: All colleges offer many majors and Leslie isn’t sure what he wants anyway. Like so many kids, Leslie will probably end up changing majors. Sure, if Leslie were hell-bent on something anomalous like entomology or biomedical engineering, fine. But Leslie probably will major in something common like chemistry and if that’s too hard, switch to something like psychology or sociology. Every college has those majors.

Parent: But what about the college’s quality, like its U.S. News ranking?

Alter ego: A review of articles on that makes clear that a college’s U.S. News rank is a poor criterion for choosing a college.

Parent: Okay, public or private?

Alter ego: Mainly it’s the elite privates like Harvard or Stanford that give most students enough cash (not loan) financial aid to make it affordable. For middle-income people like me, other private colleges—unless the student is super desirable–usually give lots of loans but not enough cash. And loans have to be paid back…with interest. And student loans are among the most difficult to discharge, even in bankruptcy.

Parent: Maybe I can make this process much easier: Encourage Leslie to apply to three in-state public—and thus more affordable–colleges at which Leslie would be a relatively big fish in that less selective pond. Because of that, Leslie will probably get into all three. Then, Leslie can visit those colleges, talk to some students, read student reviews of the colleges at StudentsReview, Niche, Student Advisor, Princeton Review’s Best 379 Colleges, and the Fiske Guide to Colleges and pick the college that feels best. And I won’t go broke—I’ll apply for financial aid and compare the deals those in-state public colleges offer. That way, Leslie will be going to a college that’s a good fit, won’t have needed to take an absurdly hard schedule filled with AP classes in which Leslie would have to get mainly As, and not have to get up at 4 a.m. to freeze in his crew boat. And the college would be at least somewhat affordable and one that Leslie and I won’t be embarrassed to tell friends about.

Alter ego: Sounds almost too easy. I need to talk with some parents and the high school counselor.

Parent: Just be sure they don’t whip you into a frenzy. The parents in this suburban school go crazy. Some of them don’t have a life so they turn the college application process into a much bigger deal than it needs to be.

Alter ego: I’ll be careful.

Marty Nemko holds a Ph.D. specializing in education evaluation from U.C. Berkeley and subsequently taught there. He is the author of seven books and an award-winning career coach, writer, speaker and public radio host specializing in career/workplace issues and education reform. His writings and radio programs are archived on www.martynemko.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME

Morning Must Reads: December 2

Capitol
The early morning sun rises behind the US Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson—Getty Images

Obama Calls for Police Body Cameras After Ferguson

President Obama has proposed new funding for police body cameras and training with military equipment to address the widening gap between police and minority communities following the police shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown

Colleges Burden Poorest Students

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ISIS May Target Military at Home

Homeland Security officials issued their strongest warning yet that American service members may be targeted in the U.S. by the militant group ISIS

Watch George Clooney Star in Downton Abbey Short

The Hollywood actor has at last made his Downton Abbey debut in a brief teaser clip for a charity film which will air during the holidays on British TV. Speculation still remains about what role Clooney will take on in the film

Ukraine Government, Rebels Agree on New Cease-Fire

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe said that under the agreement, hostilities are to cease Friday along the line of contact between the warring sides, and heavy weapons will start being withdrawn from the front at the weekend

U.S. Drug-Overdose Deaths Spike

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Wife of ISIS Leader Detained in Lebanon

Lebanese officials say authorities have detained a wife and son of the leader of the Islamic State group after they attempted to use fake identification cards. A local report said that the arrest was in “coordination with foreign intelligence agencies”

Janice Dickinson Discusses Allegations Against Bill Cosby

Janice Dickinson is one of the dozen or so women who have come forward to accuse comedian Bill Cosby of sexual assault. During a recent interview, the former supermodel broke down while talking about how the alleged rape has affected her

NFL Won’t Discipline Players for Gesture

The NFL will not punish St. Louis Rams players for their “hands up, don’t shoot” gestures made during introductions before Sunday’s game against the Oakland Raiders. The posture mirrored those made by protesters in Ferguson and throughout the U.S.

Hong Kong Top Leader Says Hunger Strike Is Futile

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has told leaders of the city’s pro-democracy demonstrations who say they are now on hunger strike that their efforts are “futile,” but that he hopes they stay safe

Judge Overturns Conviction Against Ex-Virginia First Lady

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Birdman Wins Big at Gotham Independent Film Awards

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MONEY College

Would Your Tuition Bills Go Up If College Athletes Got Paid?

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Drake Johnson (#20) of the Michigan scores against Indiana on November 1 , 2014 in Ann Arbor. Leon Halip—Getty Images

As the college football season heats up, the action far from the field could eventually raise the costs of fielding teams.

Wins by college athletes in courtrooms and boardrooms could end up in losses for their non-athlete classmates.

High-profile legal cases and NCAA policy changes are likely to boost the cost of fielding big-time athletics programs. And students—even those who never attend a single college basketball or football game—may have to foot the bill, higher-education finance experts say.

How the Game Is Changing

The most sweeping changes to college sports could come from an antitrust suit against the NCAA pending in New Jersey, in which attorney Jeffrey Kessler contends that college athletes should be paid as much as the market dictates—a salary, essentially. A win for Kessler, who filed the suit on behalf of former Clemson football player Martin Jenkins, likely would spark bidding wars among universities for top recruits by eliminating limits on such payments.

The case is likely to go to trial next fall.

“I do believe that if the Kessler case wins, that could break the bank for the NCAA as we know it today,” says William Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland system and co-chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. “This would become like a mini NFL draft. It would become a free market.”

Other factors also promise to change the rules of the game.

A federal judge in August ruled in favor of former college athletes, led by UCLA star basketball player Ed O’Bannon, in an antitrust suit against the NCAA that could lead to back payments for as many as 100,000 former athletes and additional scholarship money for future ones.

The ruling came less than five months after the National Labor Relations Board concluded Northwestern University football players were, essentially, university employees, and could unionize.

Some schools have already hinted they would pay athletes thousands of dollars more per year after NCAA officials—independent of any lawsuits—said they might allow universities to cover athletes’ entire cost of attendance.

Who Will Foot a Bigger Bill?

Only a handful of NCAA Division I schools have self-sustaining athletics programs—just 20 of the nearly 130 schools in the top-flight Football Bowl Subdivision, for example—so most universities subsidize those departments, even in a pre-Kessler, pre-O’Bannon world. At public institutions in particular, part of that subsidy is drawn from student fees.

According to the Knight Commission, growth in athletics funding at Division I schools outpaced academic spending from 2005 to 2012. Students at some schools pay $1,000 in athletics fees alone.

Changes to how student-athletes are paid could lead some schools, stuck with nowhere else to turn, to raise other students’ fees. Universities and colleges could also scale back their athletics programs to cut costs. That “would be the rational approach,” Kirwan said. “But when it comes to college athletics, rationality doesn’t often prevail,” he said. “There are so many societal pressures.”

Research shows that some students don’t even know their fees are already paying for athletics. At Ohio University, for instance, 41% of revenue from the general fee of $531 per quarter for full-time students in 2010 went to intercollegiate athletics, but 54% of students didn’t know it, according to a survey by the nonprofit Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a Washington, D.C. think tank.

Dividing the $765 per year they paid for athletics through the fee by the number of games the average Ohio University student attended, the center calculated that students were paying the equivalent of more than $130 per athletic event they actually watched in person.

Eighty-one percent said they opposed raising the amount of their fees that went to the athletics program, or wanted it reduced.

If the Kessler lawsuit succeeds, “The institutions that rely primarily on student fees are going to have to make a decision about whether they’re going to try to keep up,” says Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission. “When you have schools with $5 million for their entire athletic budget trying to compete with schools that have $5 million coaches, it’s going to strain at some point.”

The Pressure to Stay in the Game

Even some schools in the “Big 5” conferences—the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, and Pac-12—where football and basketball bring in big bucks will have trouble maintaining their programs if bidding for athletes takes off, experts said. Schools on the fringes of big-time sports success, such as UC Berkeley, Rutgers, Northwestern, and Indiana, would have tough decisions to make about whether to pass on costs to students, says Murray Sperber, a UC Berkeley professor who has written several books about the role of college sports.

The most likely outcome, Sperber says, would be for at least some of those universities to drop out of the big-time sports world by eliminating athletics scholarships or otherwise scaling back sports programs rather than risking protests by paying athletes and charging students more. But some colleges in mid-tier conferences will probably choose to stay in the bidding game, he says.

“You think of it as a big poker game where the stakes keep going up,” Sperber says. “The students in trouble potentially are those at schools beyond the Big 5, because they’ll have to decide whether to stay in the poker game.”

No Price Tag on School Spirit

Students at some big-time Division I schools said athletic success is important not just for the campus but also for the community. The University of Kentucky basketball program, for example, is part of the school’s and the state’s identity, says Jacob Ingram, president of that university’s student body.

“One of the things the state of Kentucky identifies with most is the Big Blue Nation,” says Ingram, a senior from Nicholasville, Kentucky. “What a great way to leverage our brand and share the rest of what the university has to offer.”

At Rutgers, which is in its first year in the Big Ten, the athletics department has taken on new importance with its climb into the Big 5 ranks. Few students seem to mind paying for that prominence, says senior Brian Link, and even fewer would want to see the school to roll back the affiliation.

“Given the state of where our athletic program is, I think if we have a de-emphasis on athletics a lot of people wouldn’t be too happy,” says Link, from Sayreville, N.J. “That’s where a lot of our school pride comes from—our athletic program. A lot of people in New Jersey root for Rutgers because there aren’t other big-time programs here.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet affiliated with Teachers College, Columbia University.

TIME Money

You’ll Never Guess College Students’ Biggest Regret

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Female student worrying about money Image Source—Getty Images/Image Source

It's not what you think

You might think that when people look back on their college years, their biggest regret would be not being more involved socially, choosing the wrong major or partying too much. In reality, the biggest regret college grads face is a much more grown-up one, and it’s one with repercussions that can follow them well into their adult years.

According to a study conducted by Citizens Financial Group, 77% of former college students age 40 and younger regret not doing a better job of planning how to manage their student loan debt.

Student loan debts have ballooned in recent years, even as the demand for higher education has boomed as more companies in nearly every industry require that job applicants have college degrees. Earlier this year, Federal Reserve Bank of New York data showed that Americans collectively owe $1.1 trillion in student loan debt. By comparison, we owe $8.2 trillion in mortgage debt and $659 billion in credit card debt. Each indebted borrower owes nearly $30,000 upon graduation, and many of them are struggling. Citizen’s survey finds that current students carry roughly $25,000 of student debt, while their parents carry an average of $22,000.

Nearly a quarter of former students in Citizen’s survey say they can’t stay current on their debt payments, and almost two-thirds say they’re uncomfortable with their debt load. Almost half say they would have reconsidered going to college entirely if they knew how burdensome their debts would be years or even decades later.

Current students aren’t faring much better: Seven in 10 don’t think they’ll have enough financial acumen to do a good job managing their debt, and more than 80% say they wish they knew more about the long-term impact of carrying this debt — which will take nearly two decades to pay off for many borrowers, according to the survey responses of former students. What’s more, more than a third of former students don’t even have a guess when they’ll have those debts paid.

A lack of communication seems to be a big contributing factor to this situation: Families don’t talk about student loan debt or make a plan to tackle it in advance. Only 15% of former students and just under a quarter of today’s students report having detailed discussions with their parents about how to pay off those debts — 46% of former students say the topic never came up at all.

The heavy debt burden has some wondering if it’s even worth it. While almost 90% of current students think taking out loans to pay for school will be worth the investment, only about two-thirds of former students think so. And while nearly three-quarters of current students think college is necessary no matter what the cost, only 59% of former students feel the same way.

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MONEY College

20 Private Colleges With the Highest Student Loan Debt

In this photo provided by the University of Hartford, former New York Yankees manager Joe Torre gestures after receiving an honoroary degree during commencement ceremonies at the University of Hartford in West Hartford, Conn., Sunday, May 18, 2014.
Shana Sureck—AP

A new report shows which schools leave students with the worst debt upon graduation.

Tuition at private colleges is often much more expensive than at public institutions, and debt levels among private- and public-school graduates have a similar gap: Of the 20 private and 20 public schools that produce graduates with high debt loads, the average debt loads differ by more than $8,000, according to a report from the Project on Student Debt.

The report, commissioned by The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), looks at student loan debt among bachelor’s degree earners in the class of 2013, and it shows the average debt for a 2013 graduate is $28,400, and 69% of students graduated with some debt. Schools report debt data on a voluntary basis, and most for-profit institutions didn’t submit information, so while the list of schools with high-debt graduates isn’t comprehensive, it gives a good idea of the education debt recent graduates struggle with.

Among the 20 public colleges whose 2013 graduates had high levels of student loan debt (which we covered recently), the average loan balance upon graduation was $36,388. The high-debt private schools produced grads with an average of $44,819 in education debt. Here’s a list of the private schools with the most indebted graduates.

20. Adrian College

Adrian, Mich.

Average debt among 2013 graduates: $41,763

19. College of Our Lady of the Elms

Chicopee, Mass.

Average debt: $41,813

18. Lawrence Technological University

Southfield, Mich.

Average debt: $42,044

17. Pacific Union College

Angwin, Calif.

Average debt: $42,153

16. Saint Anselm College

Manchester, N.H.

Average debt: $42,196

15. Wheelock College

Boston, Mass.

Average debt: $42,313

14. Curry College

Milton, Mass.

Average debt: $42,356

13. Utica College

Utica, N.Y.

Average debt: $42,528

12. Alvernia University

Reading, Pa.

Average debt: $42,552

11. Abilene Christian University

Abilene, Texas

Average debt: $42,585

10. Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology

Terre Haute, Ind.

Average debt: $42,967

9. The College of Saint Scholastica

Duluth, Minn.

Average debt: $43,113

8. Becker College

Worcester, Mass.

Average debt: $43,238

7. Rockford University

Rockford, Ill.

Average debt: $44,459

6. Quinnipiac University

Hamden, Conn.

Average debt: $44,552

5. LeTourneau University

Longview, Texas

Average debt: $44,584

4. Ringling College of Art and Design

Sarasota, Fla.

Average debt: $45,274

3. University of Hartford

Hartford, Conn.

Average debt: $45,778

2. Anna Maria College

Paxton, Mass.

Average debt: $48,750

1. University of the Sciences

Philadelphia, Pa.

Average debt: $71,370

Pennsylvania colleges had a strong showing on the public school list, as well as having two private colleges on this one, but Massachusetts leads the pack when it comes to a high concentration of indebted private school graduates. The exceptionally high debt load of University of the Sciences graduates could be tied to the fact that it produces pharmacists and other health professionals, who generally earn high incomes.

The list isn’t perfect: Not only does it exclude schools that didn’t report student debt to college guide Peterson’s, the source of the data used in the report, it also doesn’t include parent loans, debt of students who don’t graduate, debt of transfer students incurred at other institutions, and debt of graduate or professional school students. The reasons for high debt levels among certain schools’ graduates vary and can be difficult to pinpoint.

“There are many factors that affect student debt levels,” said Matthew Reed, program director at TICAS. He listed a few, including tuition and other costs, available grants and scholarships and student demographics. To get a better picture of institutions’ graduates’ debt burdens, it’s also important to look at the default rate.

Defaulting on student loans seriously damages the borrower’s credit, making it difficult to access other forms of credit, not to mention get general consumer services or rent an apartment. If the student loan servicer sues the borrower for the unpaid sum and wins, the borrower’s wages may be garnished, on top of the further credit damage incurred from having a judgment on your credit report. For students looking at colleges, it’s important to consider the success of institutions’ graduates and how much debt you’ll likely take on by attending the school, because it will significantly impact your future. To give you a better idea of how your student loans are impacting your credit scores, you can see your scores for free on Credit.com.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

TIME Sexual Assault

Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA

An aerial view of the central grounds on campus at the University of Virginia on March 1, 2013 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
An aerial view of the central grounds on campus at the University of Virginia on March 1, 2013 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Lance King—Getty Images

Sipping from a plastic cup, Jackie grimaced, then discreetly spilled her spiked punch onto the sludgy fraternity-house floor. The University of Virginia freshman wasn’t a drinker, but she didn’t want to seem like a goody-goody at her very first frat party – and she especially wanted to impress her date, the handsome Phi Kappa Psi brother who’d brought her here. Jackie was sober but giddy with discovery as she looked around the room crammed with rowdy strangers guzzling beer and dancing to loud music. She smiled at her date, whom we’ll call Drew, a good-looking junior – or in UVA parlance, a third-year – and he smiled enticingly back.

“Want to go upstairs, where it’s quieter?” Drew shouted into her ear, and Jackie’s heart quickened. She took his hand as he threaded them out of the crowded room and up a staircase.

Four weeks into UVA’s 2012 school year, 18-year-old Jackie was crushing it at college. A chatty, straight-A achiever from a rural Virginia town, she’d initially been intimidated by UVA’s aura of preppy success, where throngs of toned, tanned and overwhelmingly blond students fanned across a landscape of neoclassical brick buildings, hurrying to classes, clubs, sports, internships, part-time jobs, volunteer work and parties; Jackie’s orientation leader had warned her that UVA students’ schedules were so packed that “no one has time to date – people just hook up.” But despite her reservations, Jackie had flung herself into campus life, attending events, joining clubs, making friends and, now, being asked on an actual date. She and Drew had met while working lifeguard shifts together at the university pool, and Jackie had been floored by Drew’s invitation to dinner, followed by a “date function” at his fraternity, Phi Kappa Psi. The “upper tier” frat had a reputation of tremendous wealth, and its imposingly large house overlooked a vast manicured field, giving “Phi Psi” the undisputed best real estate along UVA’s fraternity row known as Rugby Road.

Read the rest of this article at Rolling Stone.

MONEY College

California Students Continue Tuition-Hike Protests

Protests at University of California campuses continued Monday with students at UC Berkeley planning a class walkout and march.

MONEY Student Loans

How to Pay Off Student Loans Without Surviving on Ramen

graduate eating ramen on the floor
Datacraft/QxQ images—Alamy

Recent grads: You don't need to live off instant noodles or buy only the cheapest beer. What you really need is a plan.

For some federal student loan borrowers who graduated in May, the time has come: It’s the end of your loan repayment grace period.

If you’re about to start shelling out monthly loan payments, just started or are hoping to aggressively tackle your debt, there are a lot of things to do before you start transferring money.

1. Get a Grip on the Basics

Let’s start with the fundamentals of loan repayment: You owe a certain servicer a minimum amount of money at the same time every month. Make sure you know how all that works. You should have received notification from your student loan servicer, but if you’re not sure who you’re supposed to pay, you can access your federal loan information in the National Student Loan Data System. It’ll tell you who you owe. Private student loans won’t be found in that database, but will likely show up on your credit reports with information about the lender so you can contact them.

Make sure you understand exactly what you’re required to pay each month and your payment due date. Jodi Okun, founder of College Financial Aid Advisors and Discover Student Loans Brand Ambassador, recommends organizing your student loan information in a document and setting up calendar reminders for when the payments are due. Look into automatic payment options with your servicer, as well, but you’ll still want to make sure the payment goes through every month. Forgetting about it could accidentally lead you to miss a payment.

2. Figure Out What You Can Afford

As a new graduate, you may be dealing with more life expenses than you have in the past, or you might still be in search of a job you want. Paying your student loans needs to be a priority, because once you fall behind, it can be very difficult to catch up, and missing loan payments will seriously hurt your credit score. You can see how your student loan payments affect your credit score from month to month by getting two of your scores for free on Credit.com.

If you’re concerned about being able to afford your payments, look into student loan repayment options. Federal loan borrowers are often eligible for income-based repayment or loan forgiveness. The application process might take a few months, said John Collins, managing director for GL Advisor, a student loan debt consultancy. Servicers are dealing with a lot of repayment program applications this time of year, so it could take you 60 to 90 days to enroll, Collins said. In the meantime, make sure you can afford your payments.

3. Make a Plan

You may hate the idea of paying debt off over the course of a decade, racking up interest along the way, but before you decide to throw as much money as possible at your debt, consider your entire financial picture.

“What we’ll recommend to everybody is right out of school, limit your required payment as much as possible,” Collins said. “They need to have an emergency savings fund in case something happens. That should be a goal before you start paying down debt.”

Once you have enough socked away to cover three to six months of expenses, then you can consider upping your loan payments, though you’ll want to make sure you won’t incur penalties and your extra payment goes toward the principal loan balance.

Figure out if you want to consolidate or refinance your student loans and what it would take for you to qualify. There are a few companies offering competitive refinancing rates for private loan borrowers with qualifying credit histories, and that could save you a lot of money in the future.

Federal loan borrowers have some decent options for making payments affordable, and all it requires is a little planning. For example, when you’re gathering documents to prove your income level, make sure you’re providing the most accurate information — your earning situation may have changed drastically since you filed your taxes — so your loan repayment is accurate, Collins said.

“Ultimately I think borrowers have a great opportunity to reduce their debt payments through the federal loan repayment options,” Collins said. “A lot of people recommend eating only Ramen, and live in a studio apartment, and only buy toilet paper if necessary. You should never feel that pressure. Use the many tools that are out there, educate yourself on what they are, and if you need help, there are plenty of resources out there.”

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

MONEY College

Why It’s So Tough To Find Out the True Cost of College

calculator missing keys
Good luck finding your college's net price calculator. Larry Washburn—Getty Images/fStop

Schools are supposed to help prospective students figure out the real price in advance. Actually finding the calculator is another matter.

U.S. colleges have started, however reluctantly, to share more information about what students might actually pay to attend—the so-called net price. But the calculators that Congress has forced schools to provide since 2011 are often hard to find, vary widely in quality, and should be used with some caution.

The idea behind the law was to give families a rough, individualized estimate of what college might cost them once scholarships and grants are deducted from the sticker price. (Loans are not supposed to be included in the net price figure since borrowing increases rather than decreases the cost of education.)

A realistic estimate of costs would give families much better information before a child applies. Previously they only got true cost information after the student was accepted and had been offered financial aid.

But many people, including parents and even high school counselors, are not aware the calculators exist, said college consultant Lynn O’Shaughnessy, who runs TheCollegeSolution.com website.

Some colleges do not seem eager to enlighten them, even though the U.S. Department of Education last year urged schools to post the tools prominently in logical places.

One quarter of the 50 colleges randomly selected by the Institute for College Access and Success did not have links to their calculators on the financial aid or costs sections of their sites. Even when the calculator was on a relevant page, it was rarely posted prominently, the survey found.

Five of the 50 schools confused matters further by using some other name for the tool, such as “education cost calculator” or “tuition calculator.”

The survey was conducted in 2012, but not much has changed, TICAS president Lauren Asher said last week.

To find New York University’s calculator, for instance, users must click on three tabs—”Admissions,” “Financial Aid and Scholarships,” and finally “Financial Aid at NYU.” At University of Pennsylvania, it takes four clicks to find the net price calculator, which is highlighted in a small blue box.

Harvard College, by contrast, posts its calculator on its financial aid home page, under the headline “You Can Afford Harvard.”

Families often can find the elusive tools by entering the college’s name and “net price calculator” into a search engine.

Another place to find links to net price calculators is on each college’s information page on the College Board’s Big Future site. This provides other critical aid information, such as the percentage of financial need each college meets.

One other potentially helpful tool is average net prices by income, or what other people actually paid. It can be found at the National Center for Education Statistics.

The Wide Range of Results

The relevance and accuracy of all this information can be questionable, though.

The difference between calculator estimates and actual costs for many families will be as little as $500, but for some, the gap could be as wide as $5,000, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of education resource website Edvisors.com.

The TICAS report said many colleges used outdated cost information in their net price calculators. In addition, 40% included estimates of “self-help,” including work study and loans, and most made this lower “estimated remaining cost” figure more prominent than the federally required net price.

The calculators also vary dramatically in their design and the amount of information they require. The number of questions range from eight to 70, as some schools want the calculator to be as easy to use as possible, while others try for the most accurate results.

College access advocates such as TICAS worry that fewer families will complete the calculator if it is too complex or requires information that can only be gleaned from tax returns.

On the other side, consultants like O’Shaughnessy say the simplified versions’ estimates can be far off base.

“Generally, the more questions asked by a net price calculator, the more accurate the results,” Kantrowitz says. But he cautioned families against relying too heavily on the result of any calculator.

“Net price calculators provide a ballpark estimate of the real cost of the college,” Kantrowitz says. “They tell you whether the college is inside or outside the ballpark of affordability but do not distinguish between home plate and center field.”

More on college costs:

 

MONEY College

Good News: There’s a New Way to Get Out from Under Student Debt

Wells Fargo signage
Peter Foley—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Wells Fargo and Discover plan to offer new loan modification programs to help borrowers who are suffering temporary financial hardship.

Two of the biggest private student loan providers have welcome news for struggling grads: Soon, some distressed borrowers will be eligible for lower interest rates and lower monthly payments.

Wells Fargo announced on Wednesday that it would launch a private student loan modification program for customers who are experiencing financial distress, like a job loss.

“Through the program, Wells Fargo private student loan customers experiencing a hardship will have their financial situation reviewed on an individual case-by-case basis to determine eligibility for a short- or long-term loan modification, as appropriate,” Wells Fargo says. “If eligible, Wells Fargo will lower the customer’s interest rate to achieve a student loan payment that is determined to be affordable based on the customer’s income level.”

For eligible borrowers, Wells Fargo plans to decrease interest rates to as low as 1% and lower monthly payments to be about 10% to 15% of each borrower’s income, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Likewise, Discover plans to offer a “repayment assistance program” early next year, though the details have not been finalized, public relations manager Robert Weiss says.

Today, the average college student graduates with $28,400 in debt. Only about 20% of that debt is comprised of private loans, according to The Institute for College Access & Success. The rest is comprised of federal loans. But private student loans are a lot more expensive. The Department of Education found that private student loans have variable interest rates of up to 18%. And private loan providers aren’t required to offer the same relief as federal loans — so private loan borrowers and co-signers who face unexpected hardships are often out of luck.

“With federal loans, you have built-in insurance in case of job loss or disability or death,” says Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Financial Aid Administrators. “These are protections provided to every borrower. Those protections don’t always exist in the private student loan market.”

That’s why these new initiatives are good news, Draeger says. “The fact that they’re willing to look at loan modification is a good thing,” Drager says. “You just have to see the whole picture before you see whether this is good news or if it’s great news.”

Deanne Loonin, director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project, says she is also cautiously optimistic. Other student loan providers, like Sallie Mae, have offered similar relief, and the devil is always in the details, Loonin says.

“It’s a good first step, but as with many things, I want to know more details,” Loonin says. “Which loan you have, how delinquent you are, what your income status is — those kinds of things can end up limiting who can benefit quite a bit.”

Wells Fargo’s head of education financial services, John Rasmussen, told the Washington Post that 600 to 1,000 borrowers should be able to get loan modifications by the end of this year. He said Wells Fargo will also offer help to people who are not yet late on their payments but foresee financial problems that may limit their ability to pay in the near future.

Struggling to repay private student loans? First, read your loan agreement. Private loan providers are not required by law to offer relief, but some do, Loonin says. Your loan agreement should explain if you have any recourse.

If not, call your loan provider, whether it’s Wells Fargo, Discover, or someone else. “It’s definitely worth contacting your creditor and finding out what they offer,” Loonin says. “It may not be totally obvious. Some make modifications on a case-by-case basis.”

Otherwise, consider bankruptcy. Borrowers have been told that it’s nearly impossible to discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy, but that’s not quite true. In fact, 39% of people who tried to get their student debt discharged in bankruptcy received at least partial relief, according to research by Jason Iuliano, Ph.D. candidate in the Politics Department at Princeton University.

But almost no one bothers: Only 0.1% of student loan borrowers in bankruptcy even tried to discharge their student debt. Iuliano estimates that an additional 69,000 debtors would have been eligible for student debt relief. At the very least, if you file bankruptcy, you can wipe out credit card, car loans, and other kinds of debt, which should free up money for you to pay off your student loans.

Finally, know that you’re not alone. “This is still a widespread problem,” Draeger says. “This is a lagging indicator from the recession. People are still having trouble making ends meet.”

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