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Forget Financial Aid, Soon-to-Be College Students Need Financial Ed

Saturday, 4 May 2013 | 1:29 PM ET
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"If I had only known then what I know now."

If it feels as if you know where this one's going, it's probably because you've heard it before. As student indebtedness continues its steady upward climb, it's increasingly become a common refrain among cash-strapped college students and graduates, groaning under the weight of hefty student loan payments.

Yet at a time when a $1 trillion student loan bill nationally continues to balloon and cripple so many, a new survey finds that the root of many students' financial woes may have started long before they ever set foot on campus.

According to the first annual High School Student Borrowing Survey, conducted by the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), nearly 50 percent of high school seniors in the U.S. can't even guess how much money they will need to pay for college.

What's more, "even greater numbers appear unable to understand the basic terms of a student loan," the survey concludes.

Many of the nearly 1,000 students surveyed have not set aside money for school, and not considered the seemingly irrelevant yet critical distinction between the terms and repayment options on public versus private student loans. They are, in essence, walking straight off of the same cliff as many of their peers before them.

Of the students, ages 17-18, surveyed by CUNA, 83 percent did not know the rates, and 77 percent did not know the duration, of their expected or existing college loans.

"These troubling findings suggest not just a lack of awareness of college cost or how debt works but also a lack of basic financial knowledge," said CUNA Executive Vice President Paul Gentile.

The survey, conducted in conjunction with Financial Literacy Month observed in April, suggests students' expectations of future earnings potential after they graduate are skewed to the upside. Seventy percent of the students said they are confident in obtaining high-paying jobs after graduation—an optimism that seems unfounded given that wages have remained stagnant since the end of the Great Recession.

(Read More: Is Private School Worth the 'Entitlement' and Hefty Price?)

Further compounding the problem is the fact that while driver's ed, home economics, and swimming are still requirements for graduation from many high schools across the country, financial literacy training is currently required in just thirteen states.

A 'National Scandal'

"I think a huge problem is that high schools aren't well-equipped to tell students what they need to know in terms of how they're going to pay for college, how much it's going to cost, and the ramifications of student loan debt," said Lynn O'Shaughnessy, author of "The College Solution" and a college planning consultant.

Many counseling degrees, O'Shaughnessy points out, "don't include any college planning in the curriculum, so even the counselors aren't trained."

"It's a national scandal," she said. "Shame on the schools of education in this country. There are hundreds of schools that produce these graduates who are essentially irrelevant to families seeking advice" on financial decision-making."

She said that counselors often hide behind an easy excuse: "We're just too busy." But if high school counselors knew the basics themselves "they could do school-wide presentations, or even webinars.

Instead, she said many high schools too often depend upon "financial aid nights," where a financial aid representative from a local college may visit a school once or twice a year to lecture students on the financial aid process, a common practice that leaves O'Shaughnessy skeptical.

College and universities are "big businesses," she said, adding that they aren't necessarily incentivized to counsel families against taking out unreasonable amounts of student loans to subsidize their costs.

"Think about it," she said. "That's like inviting a car salesman in to tell you how to purchase an affordable car. No wonder so many of these families are bewildered and getting themselves into financial trouble" as they navigate the financial aid process.

(Read More: Job Picture Looks Bleak for 2013 College Grads)

Still, she said it's ultimately up to parents and students to take ownership of the process themselves.

"No one else is going to help them," she said, "and they can't just sit around waiting for help because it's not coming."

The Heart of the Problem

"At the heart of the problem is that schools will go out of there way to admit lots of students but then leave it to students and their families to figure out how they're going to pay for it," said Ken O'Connor, director of student advocacy at cloud-based tech service LendKey and a former financial aid counselor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. "And many times that includes student loans."

O'Connor agrees with college consultant O'Shaughnessy that schools and colleges often wait much too late to start teaching kids about the realities of the financial commitments they're making

"They don't mind front-loading all of the financing for college without paying attention to the long-term outcome," he said, adding that suddenly "it's like 'surprise, you owe all this money.'"

But O'Connor said he is sympathetic to the challenges many schools face, as widespread state cutbacks in education funding have only served to exacerbate the problem. "Schools haven't allocated enough resources to the teaching of financial literacy," he said.

Still, when it comes to families making sound choices based on their relative financial situations, O'Connor said he puts a lot of the onus on schools and counselors to be honest with their students—a task that can often involve sending a message many families aren't always prepared to accept.

(Read More: Why Businesses Prefer a Liberal Arts Education)

"There are examples of students who attend college, graduate, and go on to do really well," he said. "But what you hear a lot less about are those students who have over-invested in an education that hasn't yielded the job opportunities they expected."

Get Pragmatic, Get Results-Oriented

Some states, like North Carolina, have forged ahead, however, making financial literacy a core facet of their curriculum. In 2006, the State Assembly directed the Department of Public Instruction "to provide instruction, activities and initiatives in personal financial literacy."

"Understanding money and credit and how to use both wisely are important skills young people need to develop early in life," North Carolina State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson said in a 2010 statement. "Students need to tackle these topics right alongside the academic and technical courses they need to be career—and college—ready."

But CUNA's Gentile says he understands there's no quick fix to the problem, and that many families will continue to under-invest and over-spend when it comes to choosing a college.

"There's always been a long-held historical belief that if you get that piece of paper—that college degree—then the world is your oyster," he said, no matter the cost.

The survey results, he added, clearly demonstrate that students' expectations don't reflect the reality of what's going on today, with the unemployment rate at 7.5 percent.

But O'Connor thinks there's no better time than the present for school administrators to start leveling with students. Schools "need to get pragmatic, get results-oriented," he said. "If we don't start empowering young people to be smart about their money now, they're going to fall into [financial] problems that could otherwise be avoided."

And time, O'Shaughnessy agreed, is of the essence.

"You can't just wait until right before Thanksgiving (of your senior year) and expect to be able to do much with the information—assuming you're getting it in the first place," she said.

By CNBC's Jermaine Taylor. Follow him on Twitter @J_D_Taylor.

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