In the past 30 years, tuition for one year at a public university increased by more than 200%. As rising expenses for college and rent outpace wages, more than 44.7 million Americans have student loan debt totaling $1.7 trillion. More than 2.1 million Pennsylvanians have unpaid student loans, totaling $71.5 billion, and the average cost for in-state college tuition in Pennsylvania for the 2019-2020 school year was $23,167. 

A student who used loans to fund degrees at the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University told PublicSource that college debt almost feels like it’s looming over him with each expense. He keeps track with an extensive spreadsheet. Another student said the thought of being in debt did not intimidate her as much — she planned in advance and made decisions that made her feel like she had control over her finances.

Student loans are a complicated issue.

They can leave former students with massive debt for years. But they can also open up opportunities that might not be available without money to pay for school. Experts caution that the key is understanding the obligations of the loan and to consider what the benefits will be for your future.

Are you thinking about applying for a student loan? Here’s what you need to know about college debt. 

Where can I find information on student loan debt average by school?

The U.S. Department of Education collects profiles on colleges and universities around the country and uploads the information through “College Scorecard.” There, prospective students can find out more about general college costs, graduation and retention and student demographics. 

Under financial aid and debt, you can learn more about how many students receive federal loans, median total debt after students graduate and the type of monthly loan payments students may expect once they graduate. 

For example, 93% of first-time undergraduate students use federal loans to attend Carlow University. At Chatham, it is 94% and at the main campus of University of Pittsburgh it is at 54%. 

Borrowers at Carnegie Mellon tend to spend between $162 to $258 on monthly payments. At Duquesne University, monthly payments can range from $181 to $258. 

These profiles can give you a good insight on what to expect, how much financial aid the university normally offers and an opportunity to review what debt could look like for you in the future. 

Who can I contact for financial aid?

Financial aid offices, college recruiters and school counselors are good people to reach out to, but you should also talk to current students, graduates and alumni groups to get a better idea of the experiences they’ve had — what the college life is like for those with financial aid and what happens after graduation, especially for those who have monthly payments. 

If you’re not sure where to begin, start on the college website’s admission section to find out more about financial assistance. If you’re curious about current student perspectives, check out college clubs listed on the university website. You can even use Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to find alumni groups or student clubs with people who might be able to offer you some of their experiences.

What is the difference between public and private loans?

Some loans are funded by the federal government — and are now the subject of a debate over whether debt should be wiped clean. 

There are also other types of loans offered by private lenders, often with a higher cost to pay back. Prospective students should keep in mind that loans have become easier to access compared to need-based federal financial aid like Pell Grants, which covered over half of public college costs in the 1980s but just 28% in the 2020-21 school year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Currently, Pell Grants cover up to $6,495 for undergraduate students who qualify, according to Student Loan Hero.

Federal student loans generally do not require a credit check — except PLUS loans, which are federal student loans taken out under a parent. Private student loans generally do require some sort of established credit or a cosigner.

What is a student loan interest rate?

Think of student loan interest rates as extra costs that will be charged to you for borrowing money. The rates are based on percentages of the amount of your loan, which you’ll pay in addition to the actual loan amount. The higher the rate then the more interest you will pay. This guide provides more information on comparing interest rates.

Interest on private loans often makes them more expensive, though they could have interest rates that are higher or lower than rates on federal loans. 

A fixed rate ensures that the amount you owe in interest stays steady, as opposed to a variable rate, which could be lower to start but change. In some cases, a variable rate could lead to cost savings, and it’s important to consider your own circumstances and look carefully at the details of a loan before making a decision. 

How does college debt affect my future?

Prospective students should think about future salary, job market, cost of living expenses when considering loans to pay for school now. Borrowers featured in our previous reporting on student debt had a range of experiences though all admitted that payments were often thought about, especially when it came to future investments in things like mortgages and costs associated with having a family. 

College debt is a national discussion that affects many people as the economy changes, college costs increase and the job market fluctuates. Student loan experts recommend prospective students research the cost of student loans and talk seriously with family members, parents or school counselors before making a decision. 

What are other ways I can finance my post-secondary education?

College costs can also be paid for through scholarships and financial aid provided by the school. Scholarships come in all different types based on qualifications like family income, study interest, race or gender background and more. Reach out to the colleges you are interested in as well as your school counselor to see if you qualify for a scholarship.

Work study jobs are another possible way to pay for school, along with grants funded by colleges, state or federal government. Some grants, however, must be repaid. 

Once you settle on a list of schools, talk with your family or parents or school counselor about the best way to afford college. There are ways to make college more affordable like living off campus or attending community college and then transferring. Experts recommend considering all your financial options before committing to a school. 

Is there any legislation for student loan forgiveness? What should I look out for?

President Joe Biden has said he supports canceling $10,000 in individual student debt, while some Democrats and advocates have called for more sweeping action to forgive $50,000 in individual debt. Earlier this year, the administration took targeted action to cancel $9.5 billion in student debt for Americans with disabilities and those who attended colleges that no longer exist and asked his education secretary to examine the limits of executive authority to do more.

Biden has called on Congress to act, though that has not happened. But there has been little movement on legislation. In August, the Biden administration announced that the administration will extend the student loan pause on repayment, interest and collections that was initially set to expire in September will be extended to Jan. 31, 2022. 

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Naomi Harris was the higher education reporter for PublicSource from November 2020 to October 2021 in partnership with Open Campus.