More than half of students read less than 25% of their student loan documents, according to a new study. Many skipped reading them altogether.

Those are the results of the 2017 State of Student Loan Debt in America survey, which polled current college students and their parents on their attitudes about managing student loan debt and found that most of America’s college students are flummoxed by the lengthy student loan process.

College-bound students and their parents are in the throes of financial aid season after the Free Application for Federal Student Aid for the 2018-2019 school year went online earlier this week. Parents and students across the U.S. are now in the process of figuring out how they will finance a higher education. Figuring out the paperwork is part of the challenge — and not having a good handle on it could have financial reverberations for many years beyond graduation.

“There’s quite a bit of documentation that students are simply ignoring when they take out federal student loans,” said Susan Farrell, vice president of community markets for Thrivent Student Loan Resources, a nonprofit organization that helps Christian high school students and their parents figure out how to finance college. The organization is backed by Thrivent Financial, which sells products such as annuities, life insurance and mutual funds.  Thrivent Student Loan Resources teamed up with Wakefield Research to conduct the survey.

“It’s important that students not only try to minimize their loans but also understand what they’re signing up for,” Farrell said.

More than two-thirds of students think it’s their responsibility to pay for all or most of their college education, but many of them are overwhelmed or too afraid to ask for help, according to the survey.

“It’s really stressful,” said Marek Wlodarski, an 18-year old high school senior from Cranford, N.J. He understands the basic numbers, but not how they apply to his individual family. “So much of your aid depends on these forms. If you screw it up you won’t get as much money.” He said one of his teachers referred him to a website to answer his questions, but he can’t remember which one.

Greater than half of first-time college students surveyed said they don’t know or haven’t established how much they need to borrow in student loans to pay for college.

“The whole process is bewildering,” said Matt Goodman, 16, a high school in Jersey City, N.J. “My dad is filling out the papers for me.”

Some students go their entire college careers never knowing to how much debt they have accumulated, according to Adam Carroll, a financial literacy expert, and author who helped interpret the survey’s results.

Fielding many student questions are organizations like NextGenVest, which guides college-bound students during the loan application process.

Kelly Peeler, founder and CEO, said NextGenVest gets thousands of questions each day, mostly from students who don’t know how to read student loan documents and financial aid award letters.

“They get frustrated because they think they’re stupid,” she said. “But the truth is, it’s a very complex process.” Some students, she said, will even take out more money than necessary without realizing it.

To stay ahead of the game, students should seek out counselors and financial aid experts to educate them on the process and their repayment options. And, since there is no one-size-fits-all situation, understanding financial language is crucial.

Here are some tips to help navigate the student aid process:

1.Look for support. Seek out financial aid officers, school counselors and other professionals who are trained in understanding the process. Peeler also recommended having someone double check the FAFSA form for mistakes.

2. Communicate. Thrivent’s report found that 70% of students wish their families were talking to them more often regarding a plan to pay for college. “The ability for parents and kids to talk about the cost of college early and often is critical so that everyone knows who’s chipping in, how much and the overall cost,” Carroll said.

3. Have a plan. Students that have a financial plan in place from the start end up borrowing less. It’s important to determine not only how much each student will borrow, but how they will pay back the funds. “Loans are not free money,” Peeler said.

Source: USA Today