Parents, here's how to win the game of (college) loans

Too many graduates will exchange their Cap and Gown after graduation for a ball and chain, debt that will follow them around like the proverbial weights hung on Jacob Marley in Charles Dickens “A Christmas Carole.” Today, about seven in 10 college graduates leave school with debt, averaging $30,000. But it is the other three who are the real winners of the “Game of Loans,” able to start their professional lives without the threat of tax and wage garnishment or a life sentence in their parents’ basements.

Parents and their soon-to-be adult children will find that working together to make a plan for a debt-free future is a great way to teach financial principles in a real-world setting that has long term impact for all. Tragically, young adults are delaying marriage, home ownership and entrepreneurial efforts because of debt, losing out on the accumulated assets they will need long term, to deal with short-term bills.

Strategies exist for graduating debt-free from college. And the sooner a student and his or her parents engage, the more prepared they will be.

Step one: Do the Math. Sitting down with a student to make a budget so that they understand the obligations they face and how much money they need is a good place to start.

Consider this: In a healthy budget, it’s recommended that debt payments be no more than five percent of net income. For the average college graduate with a 4-year degree in 2014, the average starting salary was a little over $48,000, meaning that it would be best for a college loan payment to be about $135 a month. And yet, the average student loan payment is $280. Taking a look at what your repayment plan will be before signing on the bottom line is vital.

Step Two: Look in the Mirror. Of equal importance to financial planning is career planning. Many students waste time and money by choosing the wrong career path. The National Center for Education Statistics found that about 80 percent of college students change their majors once, and many change it three times during their school career. Such changes mean more costs and expensive delays. Only 19 percent of students at most public universities earn a bachelor’s degree in 4 years.

Programs like Career Direct where a person’s unique skills and strengths are analyzed saves money in the long run, as students waste less time getting to the career that will last a lifetime. Career counseling should not take place only a few months before getting a degree.

Step Three: Get Wise Counsel. As you begin an education for the hope of a meaningful career, take the time to talk to people with your dream job and make a friend of academic advisors. Building a successful life and navigating career roadblocks takes work and it’s wise to talk with people who know the way. Proverbs 15:22 says, “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”

The stakes are high when mistakes are made. The Wall Street Journal reported recently “ten percent of federal-student-loan borrowers who entered repayment in fiscal 2011 defaulted on their loans by the end of fiscal 2012, according to the Education Department. That is up from 9.1 percent the year before and the sixth consecutive annual increase since 2005, when it was a record low 4.6 percent.”

But there is money to be made in lending to desperate students. And Uncle Sam is making bank, according to some surprising sources.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren talked about the student loan crisis with Jon Stewart at the Daily Show: “The government makes tens of billions of dollars in profits off the backs of kids who are trying to get an education. I think it is obscene for the government to make profits off our kids.”

She’s right to be concerned. In this economy, the young are hurting more than the old. In fact, 40 percent of the unemployed are millennials (people ages 18 to 29). That generation is struggling to find the work necessary to pay for the schooling sold as a way to get a job.

To win the “Game of Loans” students and parents will need careful planning, so that passion becomes paycheck and debt doesn’t become the thing you remember most about your education.