Personal Finance

March 14, 2014

A new way to tackle the student debt crisis

The online service GradSense connects cost and benefit questions with federal data on education debt and salaries for specific occupations.

Here’s a typical college scenario: Your daughter’s dream job is to be an elementary school teacher and reading specialist. Yet she’ll need to dive deep into debt to pursue her undergraduate degree and borrow more if continuing to grad school.

She’s worried — rightfully — about her financial future, and she’s looking for answers.

How much debt might she be saddled with? How much will her college degree translate into salary once she lands a job? And what budget-squeezing sacrifices might be necessary to repay the loans?

Those types of questions are on the minds of countless college students. And with student loan debt now over $1 trillion, there’s a greater urgency for answers and successful outcomes.

A new online service called GradSense connects those cost and benefit questions with helpful data and financial planning advice.

Launched earlier this year, GradSense is being used at more than 30 schools around the country, including Kansas State University, the University of Missouri in Columbia, Truman State University, St. Louis University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

The service, developed jointly by the Council of Graduate Schools, a higher education organization with more than 500 member schools, and financial services provider TIAA-CREF, aims to help students better understand the impact of their field of study on their future earnings potential.

The key component of GradSense is an interactive debt-to-salary calculator at

. While federal information is available for student loan debt and occupation-specific salaries, it’s often not easy to mine and requires sifting through several databases. Moreover, there are no financial education resources to offer context to the numbers.

The GradSense debt-to-salary calculator, on the other hand, pools all the relevant data into a simple-to-use tool that give users a baseline to compare. Students start by clicking on the desired degree they hope to attain, the field of study and a more specific occupation after graduating.

Take teaching, for example. A student seeking an undergraduate degree in education will accummulate a median debt of $27,000, based on data for students who graduated in 2011-2012. The median debt level climbs to $33,250 if pursuing a master’s in education, according to GradSense.

Next, the calculator shows expected salary levels — starting, middle and expert pay grades. A K-12 teacher in a non-science or math field could earn $12,840 on the low end to $64,200 on the high end, with a median salary of $42,800. That’s based on 2010 data of students who graduated with a bachelor’s degree and who worked full time or part time, according to GradSense.

After using the calculator, GradSense steers users through a four-part program that shows the impact of student spending decisions, provides advice for repaying student loans, offers guidance on transitioning from college into a career and gives tips for reviewing and negotiating job offers.

Kansas State University is using GradSense as part of its Powercat personal finance education program for undergraduate and graduate students, said Jodi Kaus, director of the program. Powercat reaches about 5,000 students a year through one-on-one counseling, workshops and other events.

The school is holding workshops starting this spring aimed at helping graduate students evaluate health insurance plans and student loan repayment programs and negotiate starting salaries.

“Graduate students have different needs and concerns” than undergrads, Kaus said. “By being able to crunch the numbers, we think they’ll be able to be more successful.”

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