The student loan crisis in the United States has never been worse than it is now. By some estimates, student loan debt increases by $3,000 every second, and Americans now have more than $1 trillion in total student loan debt.
Guidewell Financial Solutions, a Baltimore nonprofit that offers financial counseling, sees student loan debt as the possible cause of the country’s next financial crisis and is offering student counseling services starting this year.
Seeing an increase in clients who were seeking student loan counseling along with other forms of financial advice, Guidewell decided to expand its services.
“This became a natural fit for us,” said Nina Heck, director of counseling and client services.
Guidewell started offering student loan counseling to clients in November and formally launched the program in January. So far, 200 people with student loan problems have reached out to the nonprofit, which says it sees 15,000 people annually at its Baltimore and Delaware branches.
Student loan debt has skyrocketed in the past decade. In 2004, student loan debt was $260 billion compared to $1.2 trillion in 2014. The average debt went from $18,650 to $33,000, according to Debt.org, an organization that looks at debt in the United States.
At Guidewell, the typical client seeking counseling regarding student loan debt is a person who graduated more than five years ago, experienced some sort of “financial setback” and is delinquent on loans, said Student Loan Counselor Glenn Smith.
“A lot of clients went back to school in 2008 and decided to try and change their career, and now that they’ve graduated they’re falling behind on their student loans,” said Smith.
But the concern isn’t just about paying off mounting student loans. When people are saddled with six-figure student loan debt, something that Heck and Smith has seen in clients, it pushes back plans to own a home and take other major life steps. Having $1,000 in monthly student loan payments plus managing a mortgage is not realistic for most graduates.
“You don’t want to start that venture off on the wrong foot and you set yourself up to fail,” said Heck.
Reducing monthly payments to accommodate a mortgage is also not always a smart move. Heck had a client who made her last student loan payment in her 70s.
“It’s kind of a scenario where less is always best,” said Heck, in reference to the number of years it takes to pay off the loans.
Parents and grandparents can also take a hit on their finances if they co-sign a loan that a child or grandchild could not repay. A loan delinquency can lower their credit rating, and they may even face the loss of Social Security benefits to make good on loan obligations. Heck says parents and guardians must seriously consider their child’s ability to be financially responsible to repay a loan and get a job that will pay enough to stay on top of the payments.
Smith advises clients who are considering student loans to assess the job prospects and salaries of their degrees and then keep monthly student loan payments to 5 to 10 percent of their overall monthly obligations upon graduation.
“Try to determine how much money will that degree get you.”