Economics of Studying Social Work: Guest Post from The Professional Intern

**Note from Melinda: I was approached for a guest post by Jesse from The Professional Intern, a blog/website written by and for high school, undergraduate, graduate, and adult education students. One of the frequent topics on the blog relates to the financial aspects of higher education, and life beyond, and I think that the resources contained here, and on the site, will be helpful for social work students and recent graduates, too, particularly given how frequently my students’ career decisions are influenced by very real financial considerations. In an ideal world, the important work that social workers do–whether 1:1 with clients or on the macro level–would be compensated so that social workers can take care of their families and pursue their individual financial goals, too. That will take reforming the incentives facing nonprofit organizations, valuing the contributions we make to society, and creating public policies accordingly. Until then, consider Jesse and his colleagues fellow travelers on the quest to “do well while doing good.” Thanks, Jesse!

People who go to school for social work aren’t in it for the money. They realize they’re facing a lifetime of being underpaid and overworked. But just because you’re never going to strike it rich doesn’t mean you have to carry a load of debt around with you.

Before you go
One of the most important decisions you can make when you’ve decided on your career path is where to go for your degree. This is one of those times when you have to be real with yourself. Going to a pricey private college may not be easy for you later if your parents aren’t helping you pay your loans. Admissions counselors will tell you that 99 percent of students will get financial aid. While that’s completely true, they often leave out the fact that this is only a few thousand on a $35,000 price tag.
A more affordable option is attending a state school. They tend to run at about $16,140 a year. With scholarships, they can often be brought down to about $10,080, according to a recent report. Scholarships will only knock private school tuition down to about $21,020.

If you need to work while you’re attending college, look into an online degree or a community college. Many state schools can also have more flexible schedules with night classes that will help you in your quest to do it all.

Once you’re there
Student loans can often be used for any educational expense. This can be stretched easily to include some things that you might not actually need, so it’s one of those times that we have to apply the advice we often give to others–how should we prioritize our budgets?–to our own financial decisions. Remember that you’ll have to pay this money back sooner than you’d think.

On that note, any money you take from your technical loan money should be repaid by the time you graduate. If you have loans that charge interest, pay those back immediately. For the loans that don’t accrue interest, go ahead and put the money in a savings account that you can’t access through a bank card. If you need extra help ensuring you don’t spend it, ask your parents to put their names on your account and require that you all be there to remove it.

Consider signing up for AmeriCorps if there is a program in your area (or another, similar service program). AmeriCorps is a government-funded program that allows people to give back to their community in various ways. In return for your service, you receive a living stipend. Upon completion of the program, you also receive an education award, which can be applied directly to tuition costs or loans. Depending on the amount of hours you put into the program, you could end up with a couple of thousand dollars on top of your living stipend. It’s best to do the AmeriCorps program as an internship, since it will take a considerable time commitment. Many of the projects that members can sign up for are directly related to social work and can provide valuable experience along with the much-needed money.

And now, the fun part
The fun, of course, comes from having your degree. If you’re unable to find a job right out of college, take one that you can find and continue searching hard for a job in your field (ML: again–the same advice social workers often give our clients!). With the economy the way it is, even low-paying jobs are sometimes hard-to-find. In the meantime, call your loan provider and see when you’ll need to start paying back your loans. Most have a waiting period of about six months. If you graduate in May, your first payments will begin around December. You can usually find out everything you need to know by going to their website and digging around. However, if you call you will get an opportunity to talk to real people who know your situation and can help. Memorizing the number might be the most important step you can take.

If you have trouble paying back your loans, here are some options you can take.
• Defer your loans:
Deferring your loans is the first step you should take when you lose your job or can’t make payments on a low salary. All it takes is a call to your loan provider and a short explanation of why you need a deferment. You only have a set number of these to go through though, so be sure you’re using them only when absolutely necessary.
• Extend your payback period:
If your loans exceed a certain amount, your payback period may be eligible to be extended. Remember that this will make it harder to buy a home and a new car later on down the road, since you’ll have more money already tied up in loans. The amount you currently owe back is also reflected in your credit score, so be sure to check and see how much it’s affecting you before you extend it another 5-10 years. The average loan’s standard payback period is 10 years, but can go up to 15-20 if you meet the requirements.
• Consolidate your loans:
In the funny loan world, you can have two separate loans from the same provider, both due separately. If you find this has happened to you, simply call your loan provider to ask them to be combined.
• Check the time of month:
If rent is due the same week as your student loans, most companies will allow you to switch the due date. Remember that it will take a month or so to go in effect, so don’t think you can use this to get a couple weeks of free deferment.
With all of these options available, you should be able to manage loan repayment on even the tiniest salary. Remember to also list the amount you’ve paid towards them on your taxes, as some of that money will be tax deductible. Be proactive about your loans, and you’ll be able to stay on top of them.

Does anyone else have advice to share? Recent graduates, what are you encountering in the job market, and what has worked for you? Those with longer tenures in the working world, what has this perspective taught you that you wish you’d known before?

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