College graduates who applied sound planning with following their passions had a much more satisfying college experience—and less debt—than those who did not, according to a study from Fidelity Investments.

Graduates from the class of 2011 had $39,900 in average debt, while those who graduated in 2009 and 2010 had an average of $53,900. Also, 40% of all graduates polled by Fidelity, and who had saved for college, said their families worked with a financial advisor. It appeared to pay off, as these families carried 20% less debt than the average graduate, and were three times as likely to have 529 college savings plans.

“Those who had saved were able to cover more than half of the costs of college,” Matt Golden, vice president of college planning for Fidelity Investments Institutional Services, said in a telephone interview. “And they were more satisfied with the college experience.” The study took a national sample of 549 college graduates in April, and the graduates were in the 2009, 2010 and 2011 classes.

A majority of class of 2011 respondents, 66%, who are graduating with debt say the value of college is equal to or worth more than the debt accumulated. Also, 25% of the class of 2011 said they did not regret going to college, but they might have made different choices had they considered the potential debt load before enrolling. Some 39% of respondents from 2009 and 2010 classes felt the same way.

Among class of 2011 respondents, 38% said they believe the value of education is worth more than the debt accumulated. Meanwhile, 29% of those from the 2009 and 2010 classes believe the same. Only about 1 in 10 of all respondents thought the value of their degrees were not worth the debt accumulated.

“Talking to advisors and having a dedicated college savings account makes planning more focused,” Golden said. “If they can separate college savings from all other financial planning needs, it makes it more effective to set a goal, and monitor the progress against that goal.’’

The biggest lesson many graduates gleaned: Take the time to plan a career path before choosing and enrolling in a school, and find a way to fit passions with financial needs. Golden said this was one point of advice that college graduates said they would definitely pass on to high school students.

“This is interesting, from the graduates,” Golden said. Other points of advice: work hard in high school, because it is the biggest impact that the student can have on the cost of college. A good high school track record will also provide the best possible chance of securing grants. Do homework on available financial aid. Get a part-time job and start paying down loans while in school. Don’t write-off top-tier schools; they might have strong endowments and offer generous aid packages. Last, consider getting an associated degree first at a community college or state school, then transferring to a university. Another option in that vein is to graduate from a state school to keep costs down.

Other takeaways from the survey included: 59% of graduates with degrees in math, engineering or information technology are the most likely to be working full-time in their fields of choice after graduation, followed by 42% of business majors.






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