When you think about college students who graduate with student loans, what comes to your mind is probably young people who came from lower income and middle class families and couldn’t get enough merit or financial aid to cover their tuition and expenses. But it turns out that a lot of people have student debt – including NFL football players.

According to a USA Today story, Ryan Schrader is one example of a professional athlete who graduated with student debt. The Atllanta Falcon’s right tackle recently signed a five year extension to his contract for $33 million. You’d think he would have gone to school debt free with a scholarship. After all, Scholarship Stats reports that the average scholarship for an NCAA D1 athlete is over $14,000.

But unlike most NFL athletes, he didn’t go to a Division I school on a full athletic scholarship. In fact, he had about $20,000 in student loans when he graduated. Taking out student loans was the only way that he could cover the costs of attending Butler Community College in Kansas and then later Valdosta State in George, a Division II school.

While most NFL players went to Division I schools and had full ride scholarships, there are a number of other players like Shrader. For example, fellow Falcons player Taylor Gabriel also went to a Division II school, Abilene Christian, where he racked up $25,000 in student debt. Similarly, Brittan Golden of the Cardinals went to West Texas A&M and paid off $40,000 in student loans.

All of these players believe that going to smaller schools and having student debt to pay off helped motivate them to make the NFL and to succeed once they got there.

Of course, paying off your debt once you make the NFL and sign a multi-million dollar contract like Shrader did, is significantly easier than it is for most graduates. But there are still some lessons that you can learn from their debt repayment strategy.

  1. Use Your Debt as Motivation

It’s too easy to get discouraged about repaying your student loan debt. If you graduate and you aren’t making a lot of money or if you’re struggling to find a job, then you might feel like you’ll never repay your loans. But rather than focus on your current financial situation, you should spend time thinking about ways to change it.

Early in your career, it is easy to increase your salary significantly as you move up the corporate ladder and gain more experience. This is particularly true if you focus on taking jobs that will provide you with the richest possible experience. While a job with a lot of responsibility at a small business or organization might not initially pay as well as an entry level job at a larger company, you might be able to move forward in your career more quickly if you take a pay cut to gain experience.  Sometimes it might require you to get a job at another company in order to get that pay bump, but that career progression will come much more quickly than if you’re doing a job that doesn’t show off or build your skill set.

You might also decide to start a business or side hustle in order to increase your income. This could provide you with extra income to supplement your day job and allow you to repay your student loans more quickly. LendEDU reports that those who refinance student loan debt can lower their interest rate on their student loans by about 200 basis points, or 2 percent. When you combine a side hustle with the savings of a lower interest rate, you will have a recipe for success. Your business or side hustle could even take off and you could end up doing that full time!

  1. Shoot for the Stars

Not many Division II or III players get drafted or make the NFL, but that didn’t stop Shrader from trying out. Both the Falcons and his bank account are likely glad that he did.

When it comes to figuring out what you want to do with your degree, you might find that you’re pigeonholed by what you studied or disadvantaged because you don’t have experience. But sometimes you should apply for a job or take a career risk anyways since it could pan out.

You can also find ways to get experience that don’t require someone to take a chance on you and hire you. For example, you might get experience from volunteer positions or from serving on a board of directors of a local charity. Don’t give up on your dream just because people underestimate you. Prove them wrong!

Emulate Their Success

While you might not think that you have much in common with wealthy professional athletes with student loans, it turns out you do. You might not ever sign a multi-million contract, but you can emulate the discipline that they used to achieve success and pay off their loans in your own life.

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