Know This About Student Loans Before You Borrow

As a first-generation college student, I found myself in uncharted waters, especially not at home in familiar territory. I quickly realized that I had to grow fast and that one of my biggest challenges now would be having to manage my own finances and stick to a budget.

Well, my first start was making sure my total institutional bill was covered, which may require me to take out student loans coupled with any other grants and scholarships I might receive. So it happened, for my next college year, the loans were part of my optional financial aid offer, and I agreed to get my full bill paid. Needless to say, through this process and over the many years to come, I learned valuable lessons about how to handle student loans. It turns out that my career has allowed me to share with other students how to navigate this process.
The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application was the first step in the process.

Every student should complete this application, even if you don’t think you qualify for grants. You cannot get a loan without it being deposited. I had to use my parents and my income from the previous year. The FAFSA app has a place to list colleges of interest and they will send your financial aid information to those colleges. Colleges will then take this information and determine the type of financial aid and the amount of aid they can offer once the application process is complete.
The institutions I listed have sent me letters of offer.

Some came by mail, others by email with the type of help and the amount I would be eligible to receive at their facility. My offers consisted of a combination of scholarships and loans to help pay my education costs. Once I chose the school of my choice, I applied and was admitted. Now my attention was on how I will pay for school. The scholarships alone were not enough to cover all my costs, so I was offered and accepted a student loan to help offset tuition, fees, books, and room and board.

To receive my loan funds, I had to follow specific steps, which the school detailed to me. All student account information is communicated via email and the school’s personalized portal, directing you to studentaid.gov. In many cases, schools like Lamar University have financial aid counselors. I made an appointment with my counselor, who I found on the financial aid website, to get more details and walk me through the next steps.
Now this is where the rubber meets the road!

By meeting with my financial aid counselor, I learned the difference between an “unsubsidized loan” and a “direct subsidized loan”. Also, the most important part of my financial aid advice was the focus on borrowing what is needed and watching my debt. I learned that the average student loan can vary, however, at Lamar University it was between $4,000 and $5,000. They made offers to over 22,000 students in 2021-2022 and it made me feel like I was not alone. However, when you factor in other loans such as private or alternative loans, student debt can reach over $36,000. It’s easy to get a large sum of money and not have the discipline to manage it.

Many schools, such as Lamar University, have a “money management program” where students can continually take advantage of debt counseling. It allowed me to focus on my four-year plan to graduate with as little debt as possible. My advice is to take advantage of those free programs your institution has to offer when trying to navigate your educational career.
As you can probably tell, this financial journey isn’t easy, but I’m grateful for the help I’ve received along the way. Understanding the process, the help you receive, and making a plan are essential to your academic career success!

Deidra Mayer, executive director of admissions and financial aid at Lamar University. If you have a possible guest column for the company, send your idea or the column itself to [email protected] If you have something to say, we want to hear from you!


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