More college grads filing for bankruptcy

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Though college is itself still a significant financial burden for many, a new study suggests that those who finish college are financially better off than those who do not complete their degree.

According to the Institute for Financial Literacy, a non-profit organization that provides financial education and counseling, 29 percent of those who declared bankruptcy in 2010 had only completed some college.

Leslie Linfield, executive director of the institute, said this is the most at-risk education demographic for filing for bankruptcy. She said the risk stems from the fact most still have the financial burden of paying off student loans but do not have the benefit of a higher paying job.

Finishing college will “significantly reduce the likelihood of financial difficulty,” Linfield said.

But college graduates still face challenges. The rate of college degree holders filing for bankruptcy increased 20 percent in the last five years, according to the report.

Linfield said this increase could be attributed to the recession but that completing college still should be a priority.

“If you start college, finish,” Linfield said. “Work and go to school part-time if it is necessary, but the biggest thing is to finish.”

According to the institute, over 70 percent of debtors did not graduate from college.

Linfield advises that college students begin good financial practices now to reduce their likelihood of financial distress later. Her advice includes: paying off credit cards in full every month, saving 10 percent of earnings and accepting all retirement funds from employers.

The top five causes of financial distress are overextending on credit, reduction of income, unexpected expenses, job loss and illness or injury, the report stated.

The somewhat-good news is that the percentage of debtors 34 and younger decreased by 30 percent.

“Unfortunately,” Linfied said, “(the decrease is) because our debtors are getting older.” She said in 2010 the majority of those filing for bankruptcy were between 45 and 54 years old.

The trend is of great concern because older debtors have less time to recover, she said.

“If someone is 30 and goes bankrupt they still have another 30 years to recover and rebuild their life,” Linfied said.

The data comes from surveys completed by more than 53,000 clients of the Institute of Financial Literacy who participated in their credit counseling or financial education programs.

Laura Kestner, director of the Career Services Center, said the center saw a dramatic spike in alumni seeking help in 2008 and 2009. She said during this spike many of the alumni were making mid-level career changes. She said 20 percent of the people the center serves are alumni.

Paul Strouse, a Wisconsin bankruptcy attorney, said the trouble for recent college graduates is twofold: They are entering a workforce without enough jobs and face the prospect of paying off student debts. He said this causes an initial setback that is difficult to recover from.

Strouse said filing for bankruptcy should be seen as a last resort to provide relief for consumers who have been living outside of their means for too long. He advises students to live within their means and avoid falling behind financially.

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