College-bound high school seniors of America: You are about to embark on one of the most formative periods of your life, full of new friendships, personal growth and overcaffeinated conversations on the nature of humanity.
Keep "ruinous student debt" off the list.
At this point, while you're working on applications and deciding which schools most excite you, you may be hearing that college debt is "good debt." That an education is priceless, and if you're going to borrow money for anything, it should be to expand your mind and career options.
That's only partially true.
It's OK to borrow some money for school. But a college education does come with a cost — one that becomes very real after graduation if student loan payments affect where you live and work, and how much you can save for the future.
Years from now, college should live as a memory of late-night library runs and lightbulb moments in class, not as a financial decision you regret. Here's how to make that happen.
ESTIMATE YOUR COLLEGE COSTS
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as the FAFSA, opened on Oct. 1, 2018, for the 2019-20 school year. The form gives you access to free federal aid such as Pell Grants, plus low-interest federal student loans. Fill it out as soon as possible if you haven't already; some aid, such as federal work-study, is first come, first served.
The FAFSA will give you an Expected Family Contribution, the amount of money the government calculates your family can provide for college. Use the net price calculator for each school you're interested in to see how much you'll likely pay per year based on your family's income. These two numbers should give you a picture of the schools that will require massive yearly student loan borrowing, and those that are more affordable.
It isn't easy to let go of your vision of college if your dream school is too expensive. Yes, you can always appeal for more financial aid, and living at home or applying for outside scholarships can help offset costs. But your likely student loan burden should be one of the top factors you consider when figuring out where to apply and where to go.
FOCUS ON YOUR FUTURE STUDENT LOAN PAYMENT
Here's how to decide whether a school is truly affordable: Your student loan payment after graduation should be no more than 10 percent of your monthly take-home pay. That's true for both parents and students.
Use a student loan affordability calculator to find your maximum loan payment. As a student, you'll need to know your expected first-year salary, which you can find in the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Occupational Outlook Handbook . No idea what you'll do after school? Use $50,000 as an upper bound; that's the median annual salary for 25- to 34-year olds with bachelor's degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But depending on where you live, $30,000 or $40,000 could be more realistic, especially for your first year out of school.
CHOOSE THE RIGHT LOANS
Keep an eye on the type of loans you opt for, too. Choose federal loans first, and take out the maximum amount of subsidized and unsubsidized federal direct loans that you can as a student.
Parent PLUS loans have higher interest rates and fees than federal student loans, and they have higher borrowing limits. Parents who work for nonprofits could get PLUS loans forgiven through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, as long as they go through the process of making those loans eligible.
But in general, it's troublingly easy for parents to borrow too much in PLUS loans. Also, PLUS loans require a credit check, so if a parent can't qualify, a student may be able to get more unsubsidized federal loans.
Parents should keep their borrowing well below the 10 percent threshold referenced above, and potentially look into private loans, if they can get lower interest rates than PLUS loans offer. Many private loans also offer the option to remove the parent as the co-signer later on, leaving the student with the responsibility for payoff.
More than half of student loan borrowers in 2017 said their education wasn't worth the debt they took on, according to a NerdWallet survey. You don't have to be one of them.
This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Brianna McGurran is a writer at NerdWallet. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @briannamcscribe.
NerdWallet: Is college worth it?
U.S. Department of Education: Net Price Calculator Center
Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook