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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

As we just heard, students face huge challenges in managing debt. In the U.S., student loan debt surpassed credit card debt last year. This year, it's projected to exceed a trillion dollars.

Steve Inskeep spoke with Mark Kantrowitz. As publisher of FinAid.org and FastWeb.com, he writes about the choices students need to make before they enter college.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

So is all this borrowing for college smart?

Mr. MARK KANTROWITZ (Publisher, FinAid.org, FastWeb.com): Well, it's smart if it's enabling you to invest in your future. It's not smart if you're over-borrowing for the value of that investment. So...

INSKEEP: Over-borrowing?

Mr. KANTROWITZ: If you borrow more than your expected starting salary after you graduate, you're going to struggle to repay your loans. And I can see someone borrowing perhaps $10,000 a year if they're majoring in computer science or nursing, but I can't see borrowing that amount of money for a degree in art or humanities or sociology, because the jobs just don't pay as well for those fields of study.

INSKEEP: What are some of the most, let's say, the hardest degrees to monetize later on?

Mr. KANTROWITZ: Some of the most common majors for students who are having trouble are degrees in religious studies and theater. Ethnomusicology is one that I've written about, where I got a call and an email from a student who was contemplating borrowing six figures of debt to pay for that degree.

INSKEEP: Ethnomusicology - I mean, that's the study of music, but also of the society behind the culture behind the music. Is that right?

Mr. KANTROWITZ: That's right. And there are only two main occupations for a degree in ethnomusicology. One is being a music librarian, which doesn't pay very well. The other is being a university faculty, teaching other students about ethnomusicology.

INSKEEP: If you're having to borrow that $10,000 per year, you've got to multiply that by four years - maybe more. You should hope that the field that you're heading into has a starting salary of at least that much.

Mr. KANTROWITZ: That's right. And if you're going to be borrowing more than that, you should look for a less-expensive college, or maybe you should double major in a field that will enable you to repay that debt.

INSKEEP: So you're not saying don't become an ethnomusicologist. You are saying do it in a smart way so that you don't get in trouble later on.

Mr. KANTROWITZ: That's right. I'd be the last person to tell a student not to follow their dreams. You just need to have that kind of conversation before you incur the debt.

INSKEEP: Mark Kantrowitz is the publisher of FinAid.org and FastWeb.com. He's speaking from member station WQED in Pittsburgh. Thanks very much.

Mr. KANTROWITZ: Thank you for having me.

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MONTAGNE: And our series Money Counts continues all week. We'll hear about a program in Virginia that teaches middle school students the value of a buck. There's more on our series at our website: npr.org.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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