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Straight Talk About Student Loans and College Debt

So remember when we told you that the national unemployment rate was just tipping over and above 8 percent?

The good news is that it fell to 7.8 percent - the lowest it's been since President Obama took office.

But the situation is a bit more dire for millennials.

For Generation Y, joblessness is well above 11 percent.

And the lack of work out there does not help when it comes to paying off the college loans that have buried millions in debt.

How can this be, and what can be done about it? Here's a breakdown of the issue and a list of ways to combat its ugliest effects.

The numbers are in...

Eleven percent of young people between the ages of 18-29 are unemployed. This doesn't include an additional 1.7 million in that age group who have stopped looking after becoming discouraged.

Young minorities and women are being hit the hardest:

That's a lot of people.

MTV is even writing the phenomenon into their scripts. In addition to those celebratory music videos like "Fun: We Are Young," the network is airing a new show this fall called "underemployed." The characters, college graduates with idealistic expectations about the real world, will do anything to keep their jobs and internships (including eating dog food at a business presentation to impress the boss).

Will minorities be accurately portrayed in this new show? Jon Stewart thinks not.

Follow the yellow brick road...

Even if its long spiraling path is likely to create dizzying effects, college is the best route to gainful employment.

It's just a matter of choosing the right one and strategizing (and re-strategizing) your financial and academic methods for paying and getting through.

College degrees do hold value. Just compare the numbers of the young unemployed:

24 percent of recent high school grads
vs.
6 percent of recent college grads

Four out of five jobs destroyed in the recession were held by workers with a high school diploma, and during the recovery over 2 million jobs for the college-educated were added.

What would you do if you only had a brain and not a degree?

Can you avoid the debt trap?

If only we had Bundesausbildungsförderungsgesetz ... or "BAföG."

You may or may not speak German. The question is, does the U.S. government?

Thanks to the BAföG law in Germany, if a student's parents can't afford to pay for college, the government pays for some or all of it.

Sounds dreamy, doesn't it?

The United States has over 1 TRILLION dollars in student loan debt. And avoiding the debt trap often means mostly relying on yourself rather than on family or the government.

Student loans can be "toxic" - especially private loans, which come with high interest rates and shorter grace periods than federal loans. (A grace period is the amount of time given after graduation before borrowers have to make their first payment.)

As of 2010, 40 percent of households headed by someone 35 or under owe debt, up from 15 percent in 1989.

These loans are like ghosts following individuals, their careers and families around the rest of their lives, for two main reasons:

1. Forty-five percent of adults between the ages of 48 to 64 will not save enough to pay for their basic needs during retirement. Adults are still borrowing to help with the rising costs their children must pay, growing the burden.

2. Typical student loan borrowers were not likely to qualify for the average mortgage, a recent policy brief by Young Invincibles said.

So the question is, can you afford it?

The U.S. government isn't doing absolutely nothing. Two-thirds of college students are getting some kind of tuition break. And now there's a law that requires all colleges to post cost calculators on their websites.

This way families can easily forecast the cost of going to school with the help of grants and loans.

By entering your tax returns and other information into one of these net calculators you can ballpark the "real" cost of whatever school you're looking at.

The keyword here is ballpark: not all of these calculators are entirely accurate and some are difficult to use.

How about private school?

As the price tags at public universities continue to swell, the cost of going to private colleges is a lot less inflamed.

Some have even frozen tuition costs, while others have cut them back. Concordia University, for example, discounted tuition by 33 percent for its incoming class.

If you're headed to a private institution, it would help to have either an overflowing piggie bank or some kind of tuition break. For those not receiving any aid, private college tuition could cost more than $200,000. Seriously.

Would an act of Congress help?

APSCU Career Day Student Rally 003

Maybe. The Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012, which applies only to federal loans, is floating around legislative subcommittees.

The bill does two big things:

1. Cuts down required monthly payments based on the borrower's income.

2. Consolidates loans capping their interest rates and making them easier to track.

Will it pass? Time will tell.

Tips for the 'loanly'

I'll be in Debt with Student Loans for the Next 20 Yrs.

Since the federal government does little compared to some other countries in helping its people pay for school, here are some things you can do to control your losses:

1. Borrow federal first. Federal loans are cheaper and more available. The repayment terms are better than private student loans, as they give a grace period to pay them off. (Submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) at fafsa.ed.gov to apply for federal and state grants.)

2. Live like a student while you are in school, so you don't have to live like a student after you graduate.

3. Consider switching to a less expensive school, if you have the option to, without jeopardizing quality.

4. Make sure to differentiate between grants and loans. Some programs, like University of California's Blue and Gold program, pay for your schooling if your parents make under a certain amount - but they can be confusing. These are just guaranteed loans, not grants.

5. Know your grace period. There are different grace periods for different loans.

The Kicker

Read (or submit) a student debt story >>

Consider college alternatives >>

Sign a petition to support the Student Loan Forgiveness Act >>

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Jennifer Cain

Jenny Cain is a freelance writer from Orange County, California, and former banana slug, or UC Santa Cruz alum. She teaches classical and jazz piano to high school students and audits classes at UC Irvine. Inspired by Beyonce, Sheryl Sandberg, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and the Supreme Court’s 3 badass lady justices, she’d like to see the U.S. elect their first woman president. Like, yesterday.

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