"What I've noticed a change in is people want to talk about debt," says Carly Eichhorst, the associate director of financial aid at Augsburg College in Minnesota. "In the past, people were like, 'This is my dream, we'll figure it out later, and [debt] is a short-term band aid.' [Now] they want to be more educated about strategies and financing."
Some prospective student inquiries may be fueled by national stories of students overwhelmed by six-figure debt. At Florida's Eckerd College, for instance, the financial aid office received letters from accepted students worrying that they would take on $100,000 in student loans to attend, financial aid director Pat Watkins says.
"When we talk with students, we try to figure out, 'Where are you getting that figure?'" she says. "It's, 'Well, that's what I heard.'"
In reality, it's not likely that the majority of students will go into that much debt to go to college. Among college graduates in 2007-2008, only 0.2 percent carried six-figure loan debt, according to a recent analysis by financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz.
[See which colleges graduate students with the most debt.]
Students who do get into substantially higher amounts of debt typically have extenuating circumstances. They may have transferred schools several times over many years without ever earning a degree, Eichhorst of Augsburg notes, or they may be trying to make up for an expected parent contribution that didn't come through, says Rod Oto, associate dean of admissions and director of student financial services at Carleton College in Minnesota.
Borrowers who turn to private loans may also be more likely to take on very heavy debt, as private lenders do not have to abide by the federal loan limits. The differences between federal and private loans are among the topics financial aid administrators like Eckerd's Watkins can walk prospective students through.
"We explain what the monthly payments will be, as well as explain to them what the potential for cancellation of their loan will be if they're going into nonprofit sectors," Watkins says. "It's basically saying, unless you're borrowing privately ... the students won't [owe] $100,000."
[Read five common private student loan complaints.]
But it's still important to research your loan options before going into debt, and some colleges are trying to help their prospective students become more informed. At Macalester College in Minnesota, for instance, prospective students and parents can access recently posted debt information, including the average loan burdens of recent graduates and the school's student loan default rate history. And at Vermont Technical College, financial literacy is incorporated outside of the financial aid office as well, school president Phil Conroy notes.
"There is much more emphasis, not only in the financial aid office but in our orientation programs and in our first-year seminars for them to be good financial stewards—so they're not borrowing more than they have to," Conroy says.
"We try to work with them from the beginning—and it's not just the student, but it's also the family. Through our orientation program, we work with parents and students so that they understand what the ramifications are of decisions ... including borrowing."
[Find out how much you should borrow for college.]
Students and parents can also ask their own educated questions, notes Brian Lindeman, the director of financial aid at Macalester College who says he more often hears general anxiety about debt than firm questions. Among the school-specific queries he recommends: "What was the average debt of the most recent graduating class (for those who borrowed) and what percentage of the class borrowed a student loan?" and "What is the school's most recent cohort default rate on student loans?"