This coincides, of course, with college acceptances. Many parents and students are opening letters telling them they've been admitted to the college of their choice, only to have that brief elation met with the harsh reality of having no clue about how the heck they're going to afford college.
One such option is applying for financial aid. Unfortunately, the "rules of the game" behind how to maximize the money you're eligible for are complicated, to say the least. Most families (78-90% , according to some industry estimates) fill out the FAFSA and other forms incorrectly. This results in the student receiving less aid than he or she would have normally qualified for, or, sometimes, no aid at all.
All too often, the student turns to alternative means of college funding: private student loans. However, you need to think twice if you're planning on financing your college education this way.
Before you sign your life away, take a deep breath and consider what you might be getting yourself into.
Most parents and college-bound students do not realize that student borrowers are not-so-distant cousins to headline-making borrowers with subprime mortgages. Many experts, present company included, believe that the student loan market is poised to experience the devastation currently affecting the subprime mortgage industry.
To be sure, when I rant about the similarities between subprime, predatory lending and student loans, I'm not exactly the most fun at parties. I am and, let me tell you, the similarities are alarming.
For starters, student borrowers and subprime mortgage holders are ill-advised on financial matters (present company excluded, of course) - specifically, the consequences of their borrowing decisions.
It is not exactly news that that adjustable-rate mortgages (ARMs) resetting to high interest rates are the main culprit behind late payments, defaults, foreclosures and ruined credit.
Here's how it works - mortgage companies offer low teaser rates to get homeowners in the door, but frequently, the initial required payments are not even enough to pay the interest on the loans. It gets worse.
Then, after the ARM "resets," homeowners are stuck with payment increases and are faced with the unpleasant and costly alternative of refinancing. This worked for years, because it was relatively easy to qualify for new mortgages, but this rosy scenario screeched to a halt simultaneously with the collapse of the secondary mortgage market, slumping real estate values and a slowing economy.
The result: subprime borrowers were denied credit, were forced to stay in their unpayable loans and pushed into default or, unfortunately, foreclosure. Right here in Florida and across the country, college graduates burdened by student loans face similar problems. Just like the mortgage companies, student lenders offer a low teaser rate which adjusts upward (it's almost always up, not down, unfortunately!) after the introductory period.
Next comes the inevitable late payments, non-payments, defaults and ensuing credit problems. It's a slippery slope! The result - payments get jacked up a few years after the loan originated. And the new spiked payment almost always catches the borrower by surprise. Just like their subprime borrower counterparts, student loan holders are unable to make payments once the loan adjusts upward.
In most cases borrowers of both student loans and subprime mortgages claim that they were misled about the terms of their loans. They cry that the lenders withheld vital information, or glossed over important information.
The good news is that Congress has begun calling for increased regulation and disclosure in the student lending industry.
Don't hold your breath, however. This could take years. Your best bet to protect yourself is using your own brain - asking the right questions, listening to the answers. "What is the interest rate?" "When can the loan adjust, if at all?" "If I cannot make a scheduled payment, what is the consequence?"?"
To be fair, many student lenders offer this information voluntarily, which helps borrowers make better choices. But this is the exception, not the rule.
Another favorable trend is that many colleges and universities have become more proactive and supportive in educating students about all the details surrounding student loans. Many schools have made available a "borrowing consultation" offered by their financial aid advisor. And in some instances, particularly among the elite higher education institutions, the financial aid packages feature little or even no loans, opting instead for "free" money awards - scholarships and grants. The top schools, such as Harvard, Princeton and Yale, are leaders in this area.
It's clear that there is no easy solution for this problem. However, it's imperative to be mindful of the example set by the subprime mortgage meltdown, and avoid the consequences that accompany irresponsible and borrowing and lending.
College Pete and I are extremely debt-adverse and strongly urge you to do anything possible to minimize, or flat-out eliminate, borrowing for college. Think twice before you sign for that loan!