Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on college loan debt.

In one way or another, thousands of members of the Minnesota Class of 2020 are going to graduate from high school.

However, the reality of COVID-19 may change what that looks like.

For many of these graduates, that means furthering their education at a two- or four-year education institution, with some of them already planning to pursue even more years of post-secondary education.

All of that is going to cost them money, and in some cases that will mean having to borrow a significant portion of that cost.

College debt is becoming a huge issue, and according to the federal reserve the current national student loan debt exceeds $1.6 billion dollars.

According to a student aid study conducted by the Minnesota Office of Higher Education, student loans first became available in 1958, and over the next half of a century going into debt become a more common way for students to pay for their education after high school.

Recognizing this reality, more and more secondary schools are implementing programs that are intended to help students plan to pay for college and to help them realize just how much it is going to cost them.

Ally Carlson and Heather Vranicar, who serve as guidance counselors in the Redwood Area School District, said the best time to help students start that planning is as soon as is possible.

Programs, such as Ramp Up to Readiness, which was developed by the University of Minnesota, offer guidance on a number of post-secondary issues, and schools are offering that curriculum to students as early as middle school. As students progress into high school, the realities of student debt continue to be emphasized. 

David Vikander, who is the director of the financial aid office at Southwest Minnesota State University, has seen the impact poor financial planning can have on a student.

For a number of years he has traveled to schools across the region to meet with students and their parents to stress the importance of being financially ready. Vikander said the most important message is to be intentional in borrowing.

“I tell students to live as cheaply as they can while they are in college,” he said.