The Surprising Truth About How the Average American Family Pays for College

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The average American spent $23,757 on college in 2017.

People paid the most in the Northeast ($35,431) and the least in the West ($19,181). Although those numbers are interesting, they’re not the most surprising part of Sallie Mae’s annual How America Pays for College study.

They’re not the most important, either. Let’s dive into the results of study, as well as a few lessons you can use when figuring out how to pay for college.

First, the results

Curious about how Americans pay for college?

Sallie Mae was too. So it teamed up with research firm Ipsos to poll 800 parents of undergraduate students aged 18 to 24 and 800 undergraduate students aged 18 to 24.

Here’s a general overview of their findings:

Image credit: Sallie Mae and Ipsos

It’s nice to see that a good chunk of change is covered by scholarships and grants. However, it’s also apparent that students and their parents have to rely on personal savings and student loans to cover the gap.

What’s great about the study isn’t just seeing how people pay for college, though — it’s using those insights to determine better ways to pay for college.

4 important takeaways from Sallie Mae’s study

Using the data from the How America Pays for College study, here are a few lessons you can take away to help you better prepare for the cost of college.

1. Make a plan

One of the most shocking pieces of information from the study is nearly 90 percent of families knew their children would attend college — but less than 40 percent created a plan to pay for it.

It’s not breaking news that college is expensive in the U.S. So whether you’re a teenager who’s fast approaching your college years or a new parent who’s looking toward the future, start planning for college now.

Of the families surveyed, only 13 percent used a 529 college savings plan for their child. That’s a mistake; since you won’t pay taxes on any interest you earn, a 529 plan is an excellent way to save for your child’s education.

2. Choose affordable alternatives

Some good news from the study is 69 percent of families eliminated colleges from their list because of how expensive they were, and 73 percent chose an in-state school to reduce cost.

Taking the cost of college into account before you or your child falls in love with a school is a smart move for both your financial futures — because attending a fancy school doesn’t necessarily mean a better education, but it might mean you’ll take out more student loans.

Case in point: 36 percent of students from families who borrowed attended four-year private colleges versus only 11 percent of non-borrowing families.

And as you can see from the chart below, families who borrowed spent nearly twice as much as families who didn’t. Most of their costs were similar. The difference came from student loans.

Image credit: Sallie Mae and Ipsos

3. Understand your loans

When it comes to student loans, it’s essential to know what you’re getting yourself into.

The survey asked students to estimate their future monthly payments. As evidenced in the chart below, their answers varied widely.

Image credit: Sallie Mae and Ipsos

So, before you take out loans, calculate how much your payments will be when you graduate.

Let’s take the typical American family as an example.

Of those who borrowed, the average amount of student loans was $9,698 per year; over four years, that’s $38,792. And let’s say the loans were Federal Direct Loans taken out at the current interest rate of 3.76%.

According to our student loan payment calculator, monthly payments upon graduation would be $388 per month.

If that doesn’t sound appealing, take steps now to reduce your college tuition bill: attend community college first, choose a school based on cost and ROI, or consider these innovative ways to reduce college expenses.

4. Seek scholarships

If you want to reduce the amount of money you’ll have to borrow, follow the lead of the students surveyed and seek scholarships.

For them, scholarships and grants covered 35 percent of their college costs — the largest percentage since the survey started a decade ago.

Nearly half of families received scholarships, and of those families:

  • 87 percent received awards from the school.
  • 75 percent received awards from private sponsors or community groups.
  • 65 percent received awards from state-based programs.

Clearly, scholarships are becoming an increasingly important piece of the puzzle when it comes to paying for college.

Although you can learn from the average American, you don’t have to be like them. You can forge your own path toward higher education — one filled with 529 plans, scholarships, and financial decisions you won’t regret.

Need a student loan?

Here are our top student loan lenders of 2019!
LenderVariable APREligibility 
* The Sallie Mae partner referenced is not the creditor for these loans and is compensated by Sallie Mae for the referral of Smart Option Student Loan customers.
** Discover's lowest rates shown are for the undergraduate loan and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.

1 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

  1. Rates include 0.25% Auto Pay Discount
     
  2. Explanation of Rates “With Autopay” (APD)
    Rates shown include 0.25% APR discount when client agrees to make monthly principal and interest payments by automatic electronic payment. Use of autopay is not required to receive an Earnest loan.

    Available Terms
    For Cosigned loans – 5, 7, 10, 12, 15 years. 
    Primary Only – 10, 12, 15 years

    In school deferred payment is not available in AL, AZ, CA, FL, MA, MD, MI, ND, NY, PA, and WA).


2 = Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.

3 Important Disclosures for College Ave.

CollegeAve Disclosures

College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.

(1)All rates shown include the auto-pay discount. The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation.

(2)This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a freshman borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 8.35% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $179.18 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $21,501.54. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

(3)As certified by your school and less any other financial aid you might receive. Minimum $1,000.

Information advertised valid as of 7/1/2019. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation.


4 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

A government loan is made according to rules set by the U.S. Department of Education. Government loans have fixed interest rates, meaning that the interest rate on a government loan will never go up or down.

Government loans also permit borrowers in financial trouble to use certain options, such as income-based repayment, which may help some borrowers. Depending on the type of loan that you have, the government may discharge your loan if you die or become permanently disabled.

Depending on what type of government loan that you have, you may be eligible for loan forgiveness in exchange for performing certain types of public service. If you are an active-duty service member and you obtained your government loan before you were called to active duty, you are entitled to interest rate and repayment benefits for your loan.
If you are unable to pay your government loan, the government can refer your loan to a collection agency or sue you for the unpaid amount. In addition, the government has special powers to collect the loan, such as taking your tax refund and applying it to your loan balance.

A private student loan is not a government loan and is not regulated by the Department of Education. A private student loan is instead regulated like other consumer loans under both state and federal law and by the terms of the promissory note with your lender.
If you refinance your government loan, your new lender will use the proceeds of your new loan to pay off your government loan. Private student loan lenders do not have to honor any of the benefits that apply to government loans. Because your government loan will be gone after refinancing, you will lose any benefits that apply to that loan. If you are an active-duty service member, your new loan will not be eligible for service member benefits. Most importantly, once you refinance your government loan, you will not able to reinstate your government loan if you become dissatisfied with the terms of your private student loan.

If your private student loan has a fixed interest rate, then that rate will never go up or down. If your private student loan has a variable interest rate, then that rate will vary depending on an index rate disclosed in your application. If the interest rate on the new private student loan is less than the interest rate on your government loans, your payments will be less if you refinance.
If you are a borrower with a secure job, emergency savings, strong credit and are unlikely to need any of the options available to distressed borrowers of government loans, a refinance of your government loans into a private student loan may be attractive to you. You should consider the costs and benefits of refinancing carefully before you refinance.

If you don’t pay a private student loan as agreed, the lender can refer your loan to a collection agency or sue you for the unpaid amount.

Remember also that like government loans, most private loans cannot be discharged if you file bankruptcy unless you can demonstrate that repayment of the loan would cause you an undue hardship. In most bankruptcy courts, proving undue hardship is very difficult for most borrowers.


5 Important Disclosures for Discover.

Discover Disclosures

  1. Students who get at least a 3.0 GPA (or equivalent) qualify for a one-time cash reward on each new Discover undergraduate and graduate student loan. Reward redemption period is limited. Please visit DiscoverStudentLoans.com/Reward for any applicable reward terms and conditions.
  2. View Auto Reward Debit Reward Terms and Conditions at DiscoverStudentLoans.com/AutoDebitReward.
  3. Aggregate loan limits apply.
  4. Lowest rates shown ARE FOR THE UNDERGRADUATE LOAN AND include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest INTEREST RATE OFFERED ON THE DISCOVER UNDERGRADUATE LOAN and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including Undergraduate, Graduate, Health Professions, Law and MBA Loans. The fixed interest rate is set at the time of application and does not change during the life of the loan. The variable interest rate is calculated based on the 3-Month LIBOR index plus the applicable Margin percentage. The margin is based on your credit evaluation at the time of application and does not change. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 2.50% as of July 1, 2019. Discover Student Loans will adjust the rate quarterly on each January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1 (the “interest rate change date”), based on the 3-Month LIBOR Index, published in the Money Rates section of the Wall Street Journal 15 days prior to the interest rate change date, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of one percent (0.125% or 0.00125). This may cause the monthly payments to increase, the number of payments to increase or both. Please visit https://www.discover.com/student-loans/interest-rates.html for more information about interest rates.
3.99% – 11.44%1Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Earnest

3.98% – 11.35%*,2Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SallieMae

3.96%
11.98%
3
Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit College Ave

3.66% – 9.64%4Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit CommonBond

3.87%
11.87%
**,5
Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Discover

Our team at Student Loan Hero works hard to find and recommend products and services that we believe are of high quality. We sometimes earn a sales commission or advertising fee when recommending various products and services to you. Similar to when you are being sold any product or service, be sure to read the fine print to help you understand what you are buying. Be sure to consult with a licensed professional if you have any concerns. Student Loan Hero is not a lender or investment advisor. We are not involved in the loan approval or investment process, nor do we make credit or investment related decisions. The rates and terms listed on our website are estimates and are subject to change at any time.

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