CONSUMER FORUM

New guide helps Mainers navigate student loans

Posted Oct. 13, 2012, at 11:01 a.m.

Last May, this newspaper ran an editorial noting that Maine students carry the second-heaviest student loan burden in the nation.

The writer cited research by the Institute for College Access and Study, which figured 2010 graduates received, along with their diplomas, an average debt of almost $30,000. The conclusion was (and still is) that students and their families should be well aware of the interest rates attached to their loans, and what the total amount of debt is they will incur.

The editorial also noted that the federal government is developing a tool to help figure those things out. It’s in the beta testing stage, but it’s still worth a look: www.consumerfinance.gov/payingforcollege.

Meantime, the state of Maine has come up with a resource, titled the Downeaster Guide to Common Sense Student Loans. It’s the latest in a series of quick reference booklets published by the Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection.

David Leach is principal examiner at the bureau and co-author of the Downeaster Guide.

“Furthering one’s education beyond high school remains a key pathway to a productive career and higher income,” Leach said recently. “At the same time, escalating costs make it more important than ever for students, parents and others to carefully evaluate the expense and financing of a higher education.”

The 60-page guide wastes no time in offering useful data. The inside front cover features a table showing monthly payments, total interest and total debt over the term of loans ranging from $5,000 to $200,000. The table assumes an Annual Percentage Rate, or APR, of 6.8 percent, the rate of unsubsidized federal Stafford loans for the 2012-2013 school year (subsidized loans have a 3.4 percent APR).

The guide points out in some detail the differences between the two types of federal loans. For subsidized federal loans, the federal government pays the interest while the student is enrolled in school. As of July 1, 2012, interest starts to accrue upon graduation. With unsubsidized federal loans, interest starts to accrue as soon as the loan is disbursed.

The authors of the guide also spend a good deal of time examining private loans. Their conclusion: Use them as a last resort, since they don’t offer the borrower protections and repayment terms that federal loans do. While interest rates and fees on federal rates are known, costs of private loans may not be known until the borrower submits an application.

The guide offers real-world advice about choosing a school and a major. It also explores locating sources of free money (grants, scholarships and tax credits), working one’s way through school and finding ways to cut expenses while going to school.

It’s a worthwhile volume for prospective students and their families to explore in detail.

A hard copy is available through Maine’s Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection. Call toll-free, 800-332-8529, or find the online version in the “Consumer Guides” pages of the Bureau’s website, www.credit.maine.gov.

Consumer Forum is a collaboration of the Bangor Daily News and Northeast CONTACT, Maine’s all-volunteer, nonprofit consumer organization. For assistance with consumer-related issues, including consumer fraud and identity theft, or for information, write Consumer Forum, P.O. Box 486, Brewer 04412, visit http://necontact.wordpress.com or email contacexdir@live. com.

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