Consider These Factors to Ease Educational Debt Burden

If you're applying to graduate school, these tips may help you minimize your potential debt.

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We hope you all had an excellent Thanksgiving and enjoyed some hearty feasting. We're still walking around in a post-turkey (or Tofurky) haze.

But with application deadlines for college and grad school looming, now is the time to start considering educational debt as a complete picture and map out how you will cover the costs of your education before, during, and even after you graduate. Here's some insight into the factors you should consider when choosing schools in order to ease the burden of educational debt.

[Learn about applying to graduate school.]

1. Think about your future: First and foremost, as we emphasize in our popular Drowning in Debt webinar, is the need to consider your career plans and future salary.

Knowing what you will earn can help build a complete picture of the impact debt will have on your future. This will be a major factor in your future comfort.

This is particularly important for those who pursue relatively low paying public interest careers in professions that require them to incur high amounts of educational debt. Consider doctors, teachers, and public interest lawyers:

• The Association of American Medical Colleges reports that, among those students who were graduating with educational debt (85 percent of students), the average amount owed was $160,911. As debt levels rise, graduates are choosing specialties with higher pay over primary care specialties, such as pediatrics.

• The National Education Association stated in a recent letter that the average teaching student graduates with more than $18,000 in educational debt and the national average starting salary for a teacher is less than $35,000.

• Public interest lawyers have an even worse ratio. According to the American Bar Association the average debt for private law school graduates in 2010 was $106,249, while entry-level public interest salaries hover around $40,000.

[See U.S. News's Best Law Schools rankings.]

We talk a lot about how relief options such as Income-Based Repayment (IBR) and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) can help, but repaying educational debt can still affect your lifestyle and be difficult to manage. Take steps now to minimize your borrowing and ease the anxiety of repayment.

2. Determine how much you will borrow: Once you've decided what your likely income will be, decide how much you're willing to borrow in light of your likely future salary and consider all the options available to get you there.

You're looking for funding that you will not have to repay. You should consider scholarships, grants, and work study from your school and the government, but there are other ways to minimize your debt, including scholarships and grants offered by outside organizations, as well as specialized scholarships and grants. For example, some law schools offer public interest-oriented assistance and a variety of grants are available for teachers.

[Get more tips on paying for graduate school.]

Also, think about in-school options to help alleviate costs. Since you'll want to pursue internships to build your public interest experience, when you are deciding on schools and financial aid, look for opportunities for funding to do just that. You may be able to borrow less knowing you'll have this additional source of funding (which you won't have to repay) to help with living costs.

In addition to aid on the front end, you should also consider post-graduate assistance. Loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs) may be available from the federal and state governments, professional associations and employers, as well as from schools. For example, the American Federation of Teachers has a searchable funding database; the National Health Service Corps helps fund State Loan Repayment Programs; and the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program offers loan forgiveness to veterinarians. Knowing about available repayment assistance can help you figure out how much debt you're willing to take on, and LRAPs can help offset higher costs of attendance.

3. Figure out where you want to apply: Once you've determined how much you're willing to borrow, be proactive in figuring out which schools are within your budget and will provide you with the education you need to pursue your chosen career. Do more than visit websites. You should also contact individual schools and utilize search engines and guides that compile comprehensive reports of this type of information.

[Read about going to law school for free.]

If you are interested in applying to law school and pursuing public interest law, The Equal Justice Works Guide to Law Schools is a free, online tool that can help you wade through this information. It provides information about programs and opportunities at law schools across the country. You can explore data ranging from clinics and internship and externship opportunities to affordability. The guide provides information on tuition and fees, grant and scholarship availability, summer funding opportunities and the availability of LRAPs to help you choose the school that is right for you.

4. Stay proactive! Once you're in school, continue to consider and adjust the way you finance your education and lifestyle. We offer tips on managing your debt and analyses of relief options.

We also offer free student debt relief webinars—we have some sessions coming up on Thursday, December 1, and Friday, December 16, where we'll discuss the steps you need to take now to utilize Income-Based Repayment and earn Public Service Loan Forgiveness—and we share updates on Twitter (@EJW_org #studentdebthelp) and Facebook. Stay connected and in control of your student debt.

Radhika Singh Miller is a program manager for Educational Debt Relief and Outreach at Equal Justice Works. In 2008, she served on the Student Loans Team in the Negotiated Rulemaking for the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA) and has extensive knowledge of this landmark educational debt relief legislation. Radhika graduated from Loyola Law School Los Angeles and was most recently a staff attorney at the Partnership for Civil Justice, focusing on constitutional and civil rights litigation and advocacy.