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Advice for Our Younger Selves: What Millennials Wish We Had Known About Student Loan Debt

Before we headed off to college, most us heard how our college years would be the best years of our lives. And yes, they were great, but they were also pretty expensive. 

As we try to get the hang of this adulting thing—showing up for work on time and paying our bills—our college education can start to take on a different hue. If you've ever spent any time wondering about how you could've done things differently, you're not alone according to our recent survey.

Community college and a room at home wouldn't have been so bad

By the time those college brochures started arriving in the mail, we'd been waiting at least a decade to have The College Experience. We'd seen the roommate bonding, the parties, and the late-night pizza runs on our favorite TV shows and when our older siblings went to school. 

Now it was our turn. Going to the community college or living at home seemed like missing out on an important rite of passage. So we took out the loans and had the experience.

But in our recent survey of student loan borrowers, almost half (49%) said that if they had it to do over again, they'd spend the first two years of school at a community college and live with their parents. As it turns out, struggling through those first years out of college with an entry-level job and a hefty student loan bill is another rite of passage—one we wish we could've skipped.

Of course, 18% of those surveyed said they did spend the first two years at a community college, living at home. Since the average student borrower graduates college with over $37,000 in student loans, their decision to cut that number at least in half sounds pretty smart. 

Perhaps we should've considered a lower-cost school 

The burden of student debt felt miles away when were 18 years old, setting off for new adventures. We were sure that whatever loans we incurred would be paid off within a few years of graduating. After all, we were going to a great school—a sure sign that we would land an equally great job afterwards. 

Or, perhaps just as likely, we didn't think about the finances of it at all. We'd never had to pay for much, didn't know how far a salary could or couldn't stretch. Going to the best school we could get into seemed like a smart thing to do. And how else would we pay for it but by taking out loans? 

According to our survey responses, borrowers are split on the issue of school expense. 50% would choose a school with a lower cost if they were choosing now.  And 46% say their education wasn't worth the cost.

Maybe that's because we've seen colleagues without fancy diplomas rise in the ranks at work and watched our friends without student loans head out for expensive vacations in brand new cars. Whatever the reason, we see now that how much a school costs doesn't always correlate with how far we can go after we graduate.

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We might not have gotten it right

For many of us, deciding which college to attend was the biggest choice we'd ever made. We tried to find a place that felt good when we walked on the campus, that had the classes we wanted, that was far enough away or close enough to home, that seemed like the right choice. 

For some of us, the college we chose was exactly the right fit. For some, it wasn't.

Forty-seven percent of those who responded to our survey said they would choose a completely different school if they could. Price was the biggest factor, but 19% said they'd like a different career, and 16% said they'd like to reinvent themselves. 

Eleven percent were pressured into attending their school by parents or peers, and 9% ended up feeling like their school just wasn't that good. 

Honest reflection on those choices can be challenging, but we can all remember Maya Angelou's words: "Forgive yourself for not knowing what you didn't know before you learned it." Wherever we got our education, our task now is to use it well. 

And if we're battling with the financial impacts of an expensive education, we have options: we can make smart financial choices now. Find out how much you could save by refinancing.

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