A Candid Conversation with CollegeFinance.com’s Kevin Walker
The fall semester of 2020 has been dubbed the “most unusual semester on record”, and rightfully so. In the thick of the COVID-19 pandemic, some schools have gone fully online whereas others operate in various hybrid programs.
Adding to the chaos, the economical crisis has left some borrowers in dire financial states, while the cost of college tuition remained unchanged. Lenders, both private and federal, are here to mitigate the gap between expensive education and students with limited means.
CollegeFinance.com allows students to make the most of their college investment by providing them with the information and tools that they need in order to choose the right student loan for their needs. We “sat down” (had a video call) with Kevin Walker, CEO and Publisher of CollegeFinance.com to talk about all things student loans and COVID-19.
Maximize the Return on Your College Investment
College is an expensive, life-long investment. Kevin Walker thinks it’s perfectly legitimate for students and families to care about the return on their investment. “I think that most of us in the United States feel that a college education is a key to upward mobility and to being a contributing member of society. It seems a little crass to just focus on the financial return on it, but it’s just so expensive that families do have to think about it that way.”
Looking at the return on your college investment is much more relevant in the COVID-19 economy. “Now, I think it’s much more acute because, in many cases, families have fewer resources these days than they did six months ago, or they might be afraid that they might have lesser resources if there’s a financial fallout from this crisis. Families are even more interested in measuring that return,” he adds.
So how can you and your family calculate the ROI on your college investment? “Consider whether it will take the student four years, or even five, to graduate, and really try to get a picture for what the accumulated amount will be. Then, compare that amount, and the monthly payment related to that amount, to what the graduate’s income is likely to be in the first few years out of school, making sure that monthly payment is staying at a level that is serviceable for someone just starting out in their career.”
Splurge or Save: Ivy League, Community College, or Gap Year?
Social distancing has forced schools to adjust to online learning. Should students splurge on expensive schools if they can’t enjoy the full campus experience? Harvard, for instance, is charging the full amount of almost $50,000 for this academic year. Princeton, on the other hand, is offering a discount, however the overall tuition fee still remains relatively high. Despite that, Walker believes
elite institutions won’t have a hard time filling the ranks: “I think that people still value the credential more than a particular semester’s experience.”
However, he’s not sure whether this will be the case if remote learning continues in the next school year: “A lot of families decided that, in the end, they should keep marching towards the degree and hope this is just a one-semester event. Over the long term, the legacy of this time will be more families looking at the cost of college and scrutinizing whether an alternative is a smart thing to do.”
Walker has identified an interesting phenomenon in which more and more students are opting for a semester off or even a gap year due to distance learning. However, with travelling restrictions, gap years during 2020 just aren’t the same.
Committing to a Loan During a Global Pandemic
Taking a student loan is a tough, crucial decision in “normal” times, let alone during an economic crisis. To be on the safe side, Walker advises borrowers to start by checking their eligibility for federal student loans.
“Federal loans offer more flexible repayment, this year especially, the rates on these loans are pretty low.” The downside of federal loans is that there’s only a limited amount that you can borrow. “When you look at how expensive school is, that’s often insufficient.”
If you end up having to shop for a private loan, here’s what you should pay attention to: “Look closely to understand the benefits from one lender to another. Those benefits are not just in the rates you get — often these loans are priced similarly — it’s more in what the lenders call ‘borrower benefits’ which could be a longer deferment period following graduation before you start repayment. Others will offer a graduation benefit where you get a certain reduction in your principal if you graduate on time, or a special provision if you have a high GPA”
At this point, Walker suggests giving your parents a call, as they can either act as co-signers on a private loan or as borrowers of a federal Parent PLUS loan.
Getting Help From Your Parents, Without Jeopardizing Their Future
Walker prides himself on being a college-paying-parent. We asked him to break down the different ways parents can help finance their kids’ college education, without jeopardizing their own future.
“For parents, the usual financing tools available are a payment plan, which is just a very short term way to stretch out payments, a home equity loan, if the family has a house or houses and they have equity in the home, and a federal Parent PLUS loan, which, as you mentioned is a parent loan and pretty easy to get. After that, there’s private parent loans and private student loans where the parent is a cosigner.”
Since all of the above options balance the risk between the parents and their child, families must carefully discuss their various options before making a decision. “They should have a conversation around this, probably many conversations, some of which will be boring and uncomfortable. But I think it’s really important for families to share that information and the expectation of the possibility that the student will, in the future, be sharing this responsibility with the family.”
How to Pay Off Student Debt During an Economic Crisis
We asked Walker for his best tips for people struggling to pay off their student debt during these trying times.
- Check whether you’re eligible for forbearance
If you’ve taken a federal student loan, you’re probably eligible for forbearance. “There are programs which allow for people to not make payments and not accrue interest. That would be the first thing to do. To make sure you’re taking advantage of that, contact your loan servicer.”
- Contact your loan servicer about possible repayment plans
Walker also suggests checking with the loan servicer (rather than the lender) about any repayment plans. “If you have a federal loan, there are lots of very flexible repayment provisions that are based on income. There’s less flexibility when it comes to private student loans. “Ask about what kind of repayment special provisions might be available, whether that’s deferment, forbearance, or a different repayment stream. The answer may be “no”, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.”
College is Much More Than a Financial Investment
Making the most of your college investment should definitely be a high priority for you and your family. However, Kevin sent us off with an inspiring message, reminding us of what college education is really all about.
“Of course college is expensive, so we have to think of the career aspects of it and the financial aspect of it. But, as a Russian Major who ended up in business, I think that in some ways, it really doesn’t matter what you study, as long as you develop ways to look at the world and think about the world that makes you want to contribute and be a productive member of society.”
Michael Pearl is the Head of Fintech Editorial Content at Natural Intelligence and Bar Zukerman is the Content Management & Optimization Team Leader at Natural Intelligence.
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