How to Discuss Student Loan Debt with Job Seekers

student loan debt
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student loan debt

Young adults often hear that if they pick a career path they love, their job will never feel like work. But not everyone has that opportunity. Whatever industry your job seekers have in mind, the burden of student loan debt can make finding job satisfaction difficult. 

The topic is unavoidable in the career center. Many students have already signed their loans and are worried about potential consequences. In fact, a 2021 study from ResumeLab reported that half of respondents experience medium to high levels of stress over their student loan debt. 

And there’s no doubt that this stress interferes with their career development. The study also found that almost 40% of borrowers accepted a job they didn’t want because of the salary. 

Those are some pretty bleak statistics, but conversations about it shouldn’t have to be all gloom and doom. Instead, be honest and informative. Offer support on how to tackle the job market when students feel like debt is hanging over their head. 

Here’s what you can do in your position at the career center to provide beneficial conversations on student loan debt: 

Talk openly about options 

In our society, many subscribe to a series of steps that they believe is the path to happiness: get a degree to land a stable, good-paying job; get married; buy a house; have kids, etc. But that cookie-cutter sequence is not the only option.

The instinctive reaction to student loans is to land a big paycheck to have security. According to the ResumeLab study, about 70% of borrowers who currently make more than $70,000 a year went to college for better financial prospects. But it’s a loop because they then believe they must chase the highest salary to pay off debts. 

Another option for your college students could be getting a job they’ll enjoy and that maybe even offers flexible hours. Then, they can spend some time on other sources of income like an easy part-time job, freelancing, tutoring, or coaching. Since many organizations now offer remote work, there are plenty of accessible opportunities to earn a little extra on the side.

You could also suggest that students relax their expectations regarding housing. There’s so much societal pressure to move out after graduation, but young professionals can save a lot of money by spending that first year or two at home. If they are looking at apartments, remind them that it doesn’t need to be the height of luxury. Getting something small or living with roommates can be equally great experiences.

If you learn in conversation that the college student you’re speaking to is excited about following a more traditional path after graduation, by all means, support them in that goal. But it doesn’t hurt to offer a gentle reminder that there are always more options than they think. 

Include personal anecdotes

Stress over student loans can worsen if there are feelings of regret or resentment mixed in with it. Those emotions can easily lead to long-term bitterness, which could harm an individual’s job satisfaction even more. 

ResumeLab found that perception of college as a good investment changes throughout a professional’s career. Of the borrowers with less than five years of work experience, 45% believed their degree was worth the cost. But only 25% of borrowers with 11 or more years agreed. 

Believe it or not, you can do something about that for your students. You have likely dealt with student loan debt yourself, or you at least have a close friend who has. And, as such, you have an intimate understanding of how the loans affect one’s stress, job search, and overall career. 

However, you’ve also decided to work at an institution of higher education. You may even encourage some students to pursue graduate school despite the additional loans they would have to take out. 

In this unique position, you can offer enormous encouragement to students. Share anecdotes of your experiences with loans, how you made peace with them, and what strategies you have found to be most helpful in navigating it all. 

This insight helps students refocus from a state of worry and potential bitterness to one of understanding and hope. 

End on an optimistic note

You can’t hide that dealing with student loan debt sucks. Any attempt to carelessly wave it off as nothing to worry about is not only unhelpful, but it’s also fake. To ensure the career center stays trustworthy, you can’t ignore that students find debt frightening.

After all, the ResumeLab study revealed that 43% of all borrowers believe student debt is crippling and gets in the way of individuals wanting to further their careers. Of professionals who have been working for six to 10 years, as many as 57% agreed with the above statement. 

As uncomfortable as it may be, college students should be aware of those possibilities. The more informed they are about professional realities, the better equipped they can be to face it. 

But there’s also no reason to scare students into believing that student loan debt will destroy their lives and plans for the future. It’ll undoubtedly be a crucial component of budgeting for several years. However, panicking about it now is unproductive because nobody knows what various factors will affect each student’s future. 

The best you can do for your students is keep them calm, informed, and prepared for anything the future may throw at them.

Another key way to help students prepare for the future is to start building up their professional development.

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Val Matta
Val Matta
Val Matta, Managing Director of CareerShift, co-founded the company in 2005 to help individuals bridge the gap between education and employment.  As a recognized expert in the field, Val is a frequent speaker on career management, networking, and job hunting strategies.  You can connect with her and the CareerShift team on FacebookLinkedIn, and Twitter.