Let’s stop blaming colleges for ruining retirement.

To be sure, student-loan debt topped $1.5 trillion in the first quarter, according to the Federal Reserve. That’s a huge number.

However, average student-loan debt now stands at about $39,000, which is more than $10,000 lower than average starting salaries, according to Mark Kantrowitz, a longtime student-loan expert and founder of privatestudentloans.guru.

If students keep loans below their starting salaries — or if parents keep borrowing below their current salaries for all their children — they should be able to pay them off in a decade, Kantrowitz said.

“Student loans have acquired a panic reaction and been blamed for a cascading effect on the economy that they really weren’t responsible for,” Kantrowitz said, nodding to some data showing that college debt can delay home purchases.

Even if the debt is manageable, however, experts say education debt often psychologically crowds out retirement saving. No matter how little someone owes on student loans, borrowers don’t start saving for retirement or other goals like housing until it’s gone, some studies have shown.

Whether the barriers are real or perceived, a handful of financial services firms are beginning to offer college savings content on their 401(k) websites, including tools to help manage student debt.

All of that is great, and there are certainly many families who are severely strapped by education debt.

But really, all sorts of discretionary spending — from lattes to luxury cars — can derail retirement. And with education debt, at least there is usually a payoff that should positively impact retirement in the long run. The trick is not borrowing vastly more than an eventual salary will cover, and then paying off those loans as aggressively as possible.

In the messy business of life, not everyone gets both of those right, but there are ways to recover.

Six years ago, Jared Schulman graduated with a bachelor’s degree in comparative cultures and politics, and $106,000 in student-loan debt.

For a short time, he unloaded trucks at a warehouse. Then he leapt at an entry-level position in the fundraising department of his alma mater, Michigan State University. He dug into database work there, setting himself up for landing his current job in data analytics and strategy for the athletic department at University of Texas in Austin in 2016. It comes with a pension plan and a solid future career path, he said.

To get there, he drove his Honda CRV with 200,000 miles on it and rented space in a friend’s dining room in the early months. He still has roommates and has refinanced his student loans, forgoing income-based repayment in order to pay it off sooner at a lower interest rate.

He has already cut his debt to $51,000, and plans to pay off the rest in roughly four years, before age 31.

“I enjoyed my job at MSU a lot and could have stayed in Lansing the rest of my life,” he said. But the long-term career ladder was better with the move, and the debt helped him focus.

“That’s part of the push of debt,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t stay where I was comfortable.”

A great lesson for anyone, young or not so young, with goals for the future.


Stewart writes for Tribune News Service.