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Business & Real Estate

The ramifications of burgeoning student debt

New college graduates these days face the same financial challenges that young workers have faced for the last several generations.

As they enter the workforce, there’s the cost of an apartment, perhaps a used car if public transportation is lacking and, of course, their personal preferences for entertainment. At some point during their evolution, they may begin to think about marriage, starting a family and possibly buying a home. And perhaps most important, at some point, they begin saving for retirement.

Unfortunately, a number of recent economic trends – slow wage growth and higher required down payments from homebuyers – are likely to delay some of the above milestones. But the biggest culprit that impacts young Americans’ ability to achieve these financial goals now is the growth in student loans.

According to The Institute for College Access & Success (ticas.org), a nonprofit policy research group in Oakland, two-thirds of the 2011 graduating class – the latest year for which data are available – carried student loan debts. For those with loans, the average amount of debt was $26,600. And that reflects only student debt at public and private nonprofit four-year colleges. Forbes Magazine reports that more than 90 percent of students earning two-year degrees at for-profit schools carry debt. The average debt at a public two-year institution, now the second-highest form of consumer debt behind mortgages, is $7,000.

Delaying retirement saving

I can see two possible long-term trends resulting from this situation. One is a decline in the number of Americans owning their own homes. Indeed, rental markets in those cities that have had the greatest job growth in the last several years are exploding. And while housing markets in those very same locations are also doing well, foreign and institutional investors are driving much of the latter growth, as are low interest rates.

Probably the most concerning trend is the potential for young workers to postpone saving for retirement. The $300 per month that they could be stashing away into an IRA must instead go to paying off college loans. And the consequences of delaying retirement savings can be dramatic.

If you begin saving $300 per month starting at age 35, earn 7 percent per year on your savings and retire at age 65, you will have amassed a total of $366,000. Contrast that with someone starting at age 25, who will net more than twice as much ($788,000). Imagine how much more comfortable the latter nest egg could make you.

What can a college student do? First, consider the return on investment (ROI) of the chosen university. PayScale.com, a website that reports pay scales for various types of jobs, reports on the ROI from more than 500 schools. They calculate the ROI by surveying alumni to estimate lifetime earnings, measuring the costs of getting a degree and comparing that to the earnings of noncollege graduates. Although the data are limited and fraught with assumptions, it’s the most rigorous approach I’ve seen for analyzing the college investment decision. For more information, visit payscale.com/college-education-value-2013.

Next, students should try to use federal loans before considering the riskier (and more expensive) private loans. There are a number of features of federal loans that make them beneficial, such as income-based payback caps and the opportunity to have the loan forgiven in 25 years (or 10 if you work in a public or nonprofit company). But they also have drawbacks: Federal loans cannot be dismissed through bankruptcy.

Keep in mind that retirement planning, just like debt management, is a necessary part of sound financial planning. Even if it’s difficult, every month you put it off will cost you.

Artie Green, a Los Altos resident, is a Certified Financial Planner and professional investment adviser. For more information, call (408) 747-1222.

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