The Life-Altering Impact of Student Loan Debt

A look at the very real ways student loan debt can impact your life and how to make wise college choices.


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Particular adjectives frequently accompany sound bites and headlines on the topic of student loan debt—“crippling,” “burdensome,” and “overwhelming,” just to name a few. Student loan debt is a “crisis,” people are drowning in it, and it is seen as a threat to the economy at large. It is hard not to come away with an appropriate level of concern regarding student loan debt, yet, in admissions cycle after admissions cycle, swarms of college applicants continue to make decisions that set themselves up to be just as financially crippled, burdened and overwhelmed in adulthood as the headlines forewarned. The first question is why?

Some blame lies in the pervasive belief that a student should strive to attend the most prestigious school to which they are accepted. Such a narrow mindset takes “value” and how one’s undergraduate experience fits into “the larger picture” completely out of the equation, leading many to believe that paying exorbitant tuition costs, while something to grumble about, is ultimately a fait accompli—an unpleasant but unavoidable reality.

Another key factor is that teenagers, even exceptionally bright examples of the lot, are notorious for concluding that known dangers will never personally affect them (i.e. I am aware that drunk driving can be deadly, but I know I’ll be fine). Not surprisingly this same faulty bravado seems to enter into decisions around financing higher education.  

In the past 30 years, tuition prices are up 538 percent, aggregate student loan debt is now in the trillions, and the average debt load is more than $30,000. But we acknowledge that numbers, even numbers this staggering, can seem distant and abstract. Thus, we aim to present the very real and tangible ways in which student loan debt can impact your life, in an attempt to impart that decisions made at 18 can have significant consequences at 25, 30, and beyond. 

Impact on career options

A recent survey found that only 13 percent of workers worldwide actually enjoy their jobs—talk about a depressing statistic. No one’s goal is to join the 87 percent for whom work leaves something to be desired, but being boxed in by cumbersome student loans makes you far more likely to be part of this unsatisfied cohort. While there are plenty of people satisfied and fulfilled by their careers in lucrative professions, there are also many who despise their jobs but are stuck in a type of indentured servitude, working long, stressful hours just to meet their massive monthly student loan payments.

Those carrying student loan debt are less likely to choose careers in the non-profit or public interest sector. To a teenager, this might elicit a response along the lines of, “Big deal, I’ll just have to take a job where I have to make more money.” However, as this same individual progresses through college he or she may realize that his/her true passion lies in a field such as social work, teaching or public service. Unfortunately, due to loans already accrued, a switch into a lesser-paying field may prove untenable. In a world where workers switch jobs an average of every 4.4 years, this desire or need to shift careers on a dime can likewise be hampered by the burden of debt. Student loan debt is simply the number one enemy of career flexibility.

Individuals with high levels of student loan debt are also statistically unlikely to start their own businesses. Acquiring a small business loan typically requires being relatively debt-free. Even if indebted graduates could get financing to start their business, those needing to make monthly payments cannot afford to endure the growing pains inevitable with any independent venture. Eliminating this option from consideration is a shame as a recent survey indicated that 55 percent of small business owners are happy with their jobs—a pretty big jump over 13 percent.

Effect on lifestyle

The only debt-burden larger than student loans that most people will take on in their lives is that of a mortgage. In recent years, 30-year-olds with student loan debts have become less likely to take on mortgages than their debt-free counterparts—some by choice, others solely because they cannot get one. Those with high levels of debt are also more likely to be refused more simple lines of credit such as credit cards or car loans. 

Debt can have other powerful effects on your available choices in adulthood that would have seemed eons away at 18. Holders of student loan debt are far more likely to delay marriage for financial reasons than those without. One survey found that 23 percent of graduates choose to put off having kids until their student loans are paid off.

Future education

It’s important to realize that a college degree, while necessary, is no longer sufficient for entry into many of the most sought-after professions. If you plan on getting a graduate degree to enter the profession of your dreams, explore that cost before committing to taking massive undergraduate loans.   

The average cost of attending a top MBA program is more than $111,000, and that doesn’t even account for living expenses and the opportunity-cost of forgoing two years worth of paychecks. The average law degree will also run you a total in the six-figures. The cheapest medical school will still cost over $200,000.

Many graduate degrees that allow entry into lower-paying jobs also cost a good deal of money. Obtaining a Master of Fine Arts degree will more than likely cost two to three times your future annual salary. If your passion lies in the arts, let no one persuade you from the plan, but you need to have exactly that—a plan. Racking up massive undergraduate debt and then taking on additional graduate debt for the purposes of entering a low-paying job is a set-up for disaster, or at the very least, living with your parents until you are 45 (which likely also qualifies as a disaster).

Keep focused on the bigger picture

Author Stephen Covey, in his "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People," suggests that it is wise to “Begin with end in mind.” In other words, if as a high school senior, your dream is to one day pursue a doctorate in Marine Biology, you would plan accordingly, working backward to ensure that your ducks are in a row (a pun if we’re talking about sea ducks). Where do most marine biologists live? Where are they employed? How much do they make? What are the best doctorate programs in the field? What do those programs look for in terms of undergraduate candidates? What institutions did these candidates attend and what did they study? Which of these colleges can I afford? Is prestige a big factor in this field? How much would I owe in student loans if I attend my first choice and how might that influence the other future steps I’ve outlined above?

Of course, not every high school senior can map out his or her entire young adulthood from soup to nuts. The reality is, most cannot, and that’s absolutely OK. Even if you will be entering college with an “undecided” label, you can still project still financial realities into the future and consider them. You may want to become a banker; you may want to open a bakery. Either way, it would certainly be nice to have the choice.

College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Please visit our website—www.collegetransitions.com—to learn more.

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College Transitions

Expert advice for finding the right fit


About This Blog

College Transitions is a team of college planning experts committed to guiding families through the college admissions process. As counselors and published higher education researchers, we aim to bring perspective (and some sanity) to college planning, and we strive to provide students with the support they need to enroll and succeed at a college that is right for them. Learn more at collegetransitions.com

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Calendar

October 2018

North Carolina's signature event features live music, carnival rides, delicious food, kids' entertainment and more. See website for hours and ticket prices.  

Cost: See website for fees

Where:
N.C. State Fairgrounds
1025 Blue Ridge Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27607
View map »


Website »

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Run Club meets every Sunday at 8 a.m. in Midtown Raleigh or Wake Forest. Stroller friendly; children invited. 

Cost: $10/run or $100/annual pass

Where:
Optimist Park Community Center/Greenways
5900 Whittier Drive
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Sponsor: FIT4MOM
Telephone: 919-348-0472
Contact Name: Missy Currin
Website »

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Enjoy a craft fair presented by the Junior League of Raleigh. See website for hours and to purchase advance tickets.  

Cost: $10/person

Where:
Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
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Website »

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Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about tummy time alternatives, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to...

Cost: $18

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
Contact Name: Rebecca Quinones
Website »

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Join Mindful Families of Durham, a Buddhist-inspired spiritual community that supports area parents, caregivers, and their children in the practice of mindfulness and the understanding of the...

Cost: Free

Where:
Erwin Road
Durham, NC  27705
View map »


Sponsor: Mindful Families of Durham
Contact Name: Adam, Laura, Josh, Sumi
Website »

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Take part in a class that teaches individualized ways to foster motor development for your child. Learn about carry positions, best positions for your baby, how to help your child learn to crawl,...

Cost: $18

Where:
Open Arts
1222 Copeland Oaks Dr
Morrisville, NC  27560
View map »


Sponsor: Babies On The MOVE
Contact Name: Rebecca Quinones
Website »

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Discover the origins of the State Fair at a display table, and learn the history behind some of its tasty treats. Make a fair-related craft to take home. All ages. Registration not required.

Cost: Free

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

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Tour the farm, spend time with farmers who care about the environment and meet friendly animals. Tickets must be purchased online; the farm is not open for drop-ins.

Cost: $10/person

Where:
Hux Family Farm
1923 Shaw Rd.
Durham, NC  27704
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Website »

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Participants develop their naturalist skills and understanding of local nature. Ages 5-8 with parent. Registration required.

Cost: $8/resident, $10/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Cary, NC
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

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This colorful performance follows a young girl named Vita, who thinks her family has gone loco planning a celebration for deceased loved ones. Why throw a party for the dead? But when a candy...

Cost: $12/person. Free for ages 3 and younger.

Where:
Stewart Theatre, Talley Student Union
2610 Cates Avenue
Raleigh, NC  27695
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Sponsor: NC State LIVE
Contact Name: Liza Green
Website »

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The Midtown Raleigh Alliance invites you to join in for a fall festival of events for the entire family (even the dog!) This year’s event promises another fun-filled day ~ including a live...

Cost: Online - $10 adult, $5 ages 6-16, free 5 and under, $25 family.

Where:
Coastal Credit Union Midtown Park @ North Hills
4011 Cardinal at North Hills St.
Raleigh, NC  27609
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Sponsor: Midtown Raleigh Alliance and Capital Bank
Telephone: 919-438-2210
Contact Name: Emily Holton
Website »

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Celebrate local food and the community it inspires at Chickadee Farms, a female-run, organic vegetable farm in Clayton. Enjoy slow-roasted pig raised by Little Eco River Farm, Southern...

Cost: $25 for adults, $5 for kids, free for children 3 and under

Where:
Chickadee Farms
980 McLemore Rd
Clayton, NC  27520
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Sponsor: Chickadee Farms
Telephone: 919-418-9628
Contact Name: Jenn Sanford-Johnson
Website »

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Explore the birds found around the millpond and their diverse habitats through several fun activities. Discover how to effectively use binoculars to spot birds in the landscape and to identify them...

Cost: $6/child

Where:
Historic Yates Mill County Park
4620 Lake Wheeler Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Telephone: 919-856-6675
Website »

More information

Children ages 11 and older with special needs make snacks for furry friends. Register online. Choose course #116722.

Cost: $19/resident, $24/nonresident

Where:
Herbert C. Young Community Center
101 Wilkinson Ave.
Cary, NC  27513
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Website »

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Enjoy a fun rotation through hands-on stations to learn about a variety of fall topics. Interact with the topics and volunteers at each activity. Activities range from hands-on learning experiences...

Cost: $5.00 per child for Arboretum Family members, $7.00 per child for nonmembers

Where:
JC Raulston Arboretum
4415 Beryl Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27606
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Telephone: 919-513-7011
Contact Name: Elizabeth Overcash
Website »

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Learn how bats fly, catch their food, where they live, and what they do all winter. Preregistration recommended. Program includes story, craft, and outdoor experience.

Cost: $3

Where:
Wilkerson Nature Preserve
5229 Awls Haven Drive
Raleigh, NC  27614
View map »


Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-6764
Contact Name: Wilkerson staff
Website »

More information

Enjoy an evening stroll to watch the moon rise and learn about the natural world after dark. Dress warmly, wear good walking shoes, and take water and a flashlight. Ages 10 and older. Register...

Cost: $9/member, $12/nonmember

Where:
North Carolina Botanical Garden
100 Old Mason Farm Rd.
Chapel Hill, NC  27517
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Sponsor: North Carolina Botanical Garden
Telephone: 919-537-3770
Contact Name: Elisha Taylor
Website »

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Learn why leaves turn color during the fall season. Enjoy a one-hour tour of native trees in the park.

Cost: Free

Where:
E. Carroll Joyner Park
701 Harris Rd.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Website »

More information

Celebrate with this annual tribute to the state vegetable.

Cost: Free

Where:
State Farmers Market
1201 Agriculture St.
Raleigh, NC  27603
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Website »

More information

Learn why leaves turn color during the fall season. Enjoy a one-hour tour of native trees in the park.

Cost: Free

Where:
E. Carroll Joyner Park
701 Harris Rd.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Website »

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Take the family out for a night of trick-or-treating, hayrides, music and a free outdoor movie-screening at sunset. Enjoy discounts and specials at select restaurants and shops in the District for...

Cost: Free

Where:
The District at Park West Village
3400 Village Market Place
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Sponsor: Park West Village
Contact Name: Conner
Website »

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Enjoy movies, trick-or-treating in the shopping district, a costume contest for kids and adults, free hayrides and more.

Cost: Free

Where:
Park West Village
Village Market Place, corner of 54 and Cary Pkwy.
Morrisville, NC  27560
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Website »

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Ghostly games, activities, face painting, haunted maze and more highlight this annual event for all ages.

Cost: Free

Where:
Flaherty Park Community Center
1226 N. White St.
Wake Forest, NC  27587
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Website »

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Learn how information is protected online. Students will work on puzzles, encryption and code breaking. At the end of the lesson students will see if they can figure out encrypted information....

Cost: Free

Where:
Spreedly
733 Foster Street
Durham, NC  27701
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Website »

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Learn about area charter schools and speak to school representatives. Snacks provided.

Cost: Free

Where:
Durham Arts Council Allenton Gallery
120 Morris St.
Durham, NC  27701
View map »


Sponsor: NC Association for Public Charter Schools
Telephone: 336-669-9996
Contact Name: Rhonda Dillingham
Website »

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Enjoy mischief, magic, spirits and fortunes. Enjoy a kid-oriented daytime version of the popular Halloween Phantasmagoria event with crafts and hands-on activities. Learn all about...

Cost: $5 donation per car

Where:
Duke Homestead
2828 Duke Homestead Rd.
Durham, NC  27705
View map »


Website »

More information

Fly into the world of "Stellaluna" to discover bats, owls and other nocturnal animals. Make a craft. Ages 3-10 with adult. Register online.

Cost: Free

Where:
Good Hope Farm
580 Morrisville Carpenter Rd.
Cary, NC  27519
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Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

Wander the garden to see glowing pumpkins and follow a scavenger hunt. Make your own natural potions, meet live critters, design a candy catapult, and create leaf art. Enjoy treats and prizes. Take...

Cost: $5/person. Free for ages 3 and younger

Where:
North Carolina Botanical Garden
100 Old Mason Farm Rd.
Chapel Hill, NC  27517
View map »


Sponsor: NC Botanical Garden
Telephone: 919-249-8404
Contact Name: Andrew Torlage
Website »

More information

Kids spend a night out in nature making memories and new friends in an old-fashioned, camp-style program. Ages 8-12. Register online. 

Cost: $15/resident, $19/nonresident

Where:
Stevens Nature Center/Hemlock Bluffs
2616 Kildaire Farm Rd.
Raleigh, NC
View map »


Telephone: 919-387-5980
Website »

More information

This annual celebration of multiculturalism brings together nearly 60 international groups who call the Triangle home. Explore the world through main stage performances, cultural exhibits, world...

Cost: $5-$15/person

Where:
Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: International Focus
Telephone: 919-782-0552
Website »

More information

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Get ready for a day filled with Lexington barbecue, live music and family friendly attractions as NC By Train gets you to the Lexington Barbecue Festival on Oct. 27, dropping you off at the welcome...

Cost: Train price varies; free festival

Where:
Raleigh Union Station
510 W. Martin St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: NC By Train
Telephone: 800-298-7246
Contact Name: Alison Boswell
Website »

More information

Enjoy enrichment classes for grades pre-K to 8th grade. Super Saturday is a bi-annual event organized by PAGE (Partners for the Advancement of Gifted Education) of Wake County.  To...

Cost: $20-$25 per class

Where:
Triangle Math and Science Academy
312 Gregson Drive
Cary, NC  27511
View map »


Sponsor: PAGE of Wake County
Contact Name: Suzy Wang
Website »

More information

Live entertainment, a kids' zone, corn hole competition, food trucks, and arts and crafts vendors highlight this annual festival in Holly Springs.  

Cost: Free

Where:
Sugg Farm at Bass Lake Park
2401 Grigsby Ave.
Holly Springs, NC  27540
View map »


Website »

More information

Explore magnet programs in the Durham Public School system.

Cost: Free

Where:
Southern High School
800 Clayton Rd.
Durham, NC  27703
View map »


Website »

More information

Learn how bats fly, catch their food, where they live, and what they do all winter. Preregistration recommended. Program includes story, craft, and outdoor experience.

Cost: $3

Where:
Wilkerson Nature Preserve
5229 Awls Haven Drive
Raleigh, NC  27614
View map »


Sponsor: City of Raleigh Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources
Telephone: 919-996-6764
Contact Name: Wilkerson staff
Website »

More information

Children's booksellers read their favorite picture books. All ages.

Cost: Free

Where:
Quail Ridge Books
4209-100 Lassiter Mill Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27609
View map »


Website »

More information

Take the family for a grassroots outdoor music event

Cost: Free

Where:
River Park
106 E. Margaret Ln.
Hillsborough, NC  27278
View map »


Website »

More information

Enjoy food trucks, a petting zoo, costume contests for adults and pets, trick or treating at downtown businesses, a hay ride, children’s arts and crafts, balloon artistry,...

Cost: Free

Where:
Downtown Cary
South Academy Street
Cary, NC  27511
View map »


Sponsor: The Heart of Cary Association
Telephone: 919-561-3340
Contact Name: Nanette Mattox
Website »

More information

Explore the historic heart of downtown Raleigh on a walking tour of Fayetteville Street. Tours highlight the people, places, architecture and political movements that have shaped...

Cost: Adults (18+) $10; Youth (7-17) $4; Children (6 & under) Free.

Where:
City of Raleigh Museum
220 Fayetteville St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

Learn about local bats and the wonderful things they do for humans. Wrap up the session by making a night creature luminary to use in fall celebrations. Appropriate for ages 5 and older....

Cost: $1/person

Where:
Blue Jay Point County Park
3200 Pleasant Union Church Rd.
Raleigh, NC  27614
View map »


Telephone: 919-870-4330
Website »

More information

Man's best friend is featured in a family-friendly event that includes dog shows, a canine costume contest, parade, photo booth and more.

Cost: Free

Where:
Durham Central Park
501 Foster St.
Durham, NC  27701
View map »


Website »

More information

Wear a costume and take part in the inaugural Trick or Trot 5K at Wendell Falls. Prizes will be awarded for the fastest runners in costume and awards for the best-dressed runner. Awards will...

Cost: $30/person

Where:
Wendell Falls
320 Vintage Point Lane
Wendell, NC  27591
View map »


Website »

More information

Don a costume and experience the magic of Marbles after dark with family-friendly Halloween activities. Purchase tickets online; this event sells out quickly.

Cost: $12-$18/person

Where:
Marbles Kids Museum
201 E. Hargett St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Website »

More information

Explore historical concepts of spiritualism, awe and wonder from the 19th century at Duke Homestead in this no-scare event. Wander the property to see what wonders you can find. All ages....

Cost: $10 plus tax per person in advance, $15 plus tax at the door.

Where:
Duke Homestead
2828 Duke Homestead Rd.
Durham, NC  27705
View map »


Website »

More information

This annual celebration of multiculturalism brings together nearly 60 international groups who call the Triangle home. Explore the world through main stage performances, cultural exhibits, world...

Cost: $5-$15/person

Where:
Raleigh Convention Center
500 S. Salisbury St.
Raleigh, NC  27601
View map »


Sponsor: International Focus
Telephone: 919-782-0552
Website »

More information

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Education Guide

The 2017-18 Education Guide offers 660 education resources in the Triangle, including area preschools, private schools, public school systems, charter schools, boarding schools and academic resources.

The Triangle Go-To Guide

Our Triangle Go-To Guide connects you to family fun resources across the Triangle. Plus, find out who our 2018 Readers' Favorites are.