TRAVERSE CITY - College planning experts agree: It's never too early for students to start plans to finance their education. Some want the conversation to start as early as elementary school.
Junior Achievement of Northwest Michigan is rolling out several tools - from elementary school lessons on financial aid to online resources for high school students - to help students understand the cost of college.
"There's been a lot of talk in the community about whether students understand the whole process of getting ready financially for where they want to go after high school," said Leisa Eckerle Hankins, district manager of Junior Achievement of Northwest Michigan.
She said students wanted more information on financial aid, college and career path options, and what their student loans will look like after college.
Junior Achievement of Northwest Michigan expects to launch a pilot program this fall that would start talking about college applications and financial aid to fourth and fifth graders in at-risk communities, Hankins said.
"They would go through the financial aid application process in elementary school and really talk about what it entails," she said. "It's all done in a process of exploring and building. They start at a young age and see it again in middle school where it will expand."
Chris Milliron, chief lending officer at Traverse Bay Area Credit Union, has volunteered with JA for six years to help middle and high school students understand the realistic cost of college and how much they can expect to pay in student loans after graduation.
"It's probably harder to fully grasp at a middle school level, but it's important they get that early on because it gives them more time they have to plan," Milliron said. "I think most kids just assume they're going to get a loan to pay it."
But a Junior Achievement and Voya Financial survey found that although 89 percent of students surveyed expected to attend college, only 11 percent plan to take out student loans. Hankins said JA wants to get students thinking early about how else they can finance their eduction, so loans don't become the only option.
"They can start to think about what they want to do, how to get there and how to fund it, and whether or not they have to go to a four-year college," she said.
Vicki Beam, owner of Michigan College Planning, recommends families to start navigating their student's college financing process no later than sophomore year of high school. She often instead sees high school seniors scrambling for funds.
"If you're talking about funding as a senior in high school, you're almost too late," Hankins said.
While Beam said it's never too late to start planning, she recommends an especially early start for teens who hope to stay away from student loans. Sixty percent of JA and Voya Financial survey respondents fell into that category, saying they would figure out a way to go to college without student loans.
"Almost every parent says they don't want their child to go into debt, but unless they have truly prepared ahead of time, somebody is going to have to take out a loan," Beam said.
The average cost of tuition for the 2015-2016 school at a public in-state university was $9,410, but a moderate college budget for the academic year came in at $24,061, according to the College Board.
"It's not just tuition that you have to think about - It's books, room and board, materials, a laptop," Hankins said. "Those are all becoming mandatory now."
Beam said loans often seem like the only answer to cover such expenses.
Junior Achievement addressed student loans in JA Influencer, a nationwide online resource that rolled out this year with the goal of covering personal economics topics in detail. Its first segment, "Understanding the Student Loan Explosion: Implications for Students and Their Families," explored the pros and cons of student loans and offered students alternative suggestions for higher education routes.
Beam also encouraged students to consider cost-effective alternatives to four-year universities, like trade school or community college.
"Everybody's just looking at the amount of debt that these poor students are getting, and they aren't necessarily getting the jobs to make those payments," Beam said. "Everybody thinks they need to go off to a four-year college, but there are a lot of other options."
Visit www.JA.org/Influencer for more information oncollege financing and student loans.
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