Avoiding student debt [article response]


Art Rainer posted an article on student loan debt. It’s a good article. If you are considering college, or advise someone considering college (parents, youth ministers, guidance counselors, etc.) I recommend giving it a read. While I won’t rehash all his points (read the article) I would like to address a couple of them.

Keep your options open

Taking the last one first, Rainer addresses the notion “There is no other option”. He encourages people to realize there are options and to explore them before taking out a loan. I believe Mr. Rainer is speaking merely in terms of financial aid. I would like to broaden the conversation even further.

There are options other than college. Not every person needs to have a college education. If everyone went to college and earned a bachelor’s degree in the hopes of landing a “white collar job” where would we get our welders, plumbers, electricians, truck drivers, etc. Choosing not to attend college does not mean you are consigning your life to flipping burgers (though I know several fast food franchise owners who got their start exactly that way). What has God created you to do? What do you love? Accept the fact that a college degree is not going to guarantee you a job (and that money isn’t going to buy you happiness in any case) and pursue a passion.

Many careers still require some form of education, but trade schools are often much less expensive than colleges and you’ll have the training you need much quicker than four (or more) years. A quick Google search will produce more trade schools than you can shake a stick at.

What’s the rush?

In his article Rainer advises students to finish college as quickly as possible to pay as little as possible. That’s sound advice if you’re a full time student and/or taking out loans. I would counter Mr. Rainer, however, by advocating that going to school part time and taking longer to complete one’s degree is preferable to taking out loans. Rainer cites a concern that students who take longer to complete their degrees are less likely to actually complete it. That certainly is a danger. It’s not for nothing that Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” But we’re already talking about changing how we conceptualize paying for college.

If remaining debt free that we may be “conduits through which God’s generosity flows” (as Rainer advocates and I heartily agree) then let’s change how we conceptualize the amount of time it should take and encourage each other to be disciplined, to press on toward this particular prize set before us and finish this particular race well. In my graduating class were more than one student who had worked their way through college and had taken longer than the standard four years. Their graduation was much more sweet to them than to myself or any of the other students who had been able to coast through on someone else’s dime.

Personal stretching

This isn’t merely an academic exercise for me. I have a large family. My oldest is fast approaching college age. I cannot afford to pay for her to attend even the cheapest state university. We’re going to have to think differently about life after high school. I still think Rainer’s article is a great one, well worth the read. I also think, however, that we need to think further outside the box than he proposes.

3 thoughts on “Avoiding student debt [article response]

  1. I think the first thing to do is rule out any degree program that is not an economic practicality. Engineering, computer science, business, accounting and nursing are fields that pay well, and have plenty of available jobs. Art history, film, drama and a host of others have low pay and little chance to pay back the investment.

    The next thing is to figure out what you want to do. Myers Briggs, Strengthsfinders and a host of other testing options are available at your nearby community college, or county job center. It is a lot easier to strive toward a goal when you have a goal.

    Community colleges are a low cost way of completing a third to a half of the required classes. Check with a four year state school, and see what they accept from your nearby two year school.

    There is an optimum size city that is suitable to working your way through college. Huge cities (New York, LA, San Fran, Chicago) are so big, that commuting eats up all your time between home, school and work. Tiny cities, or college towns with few “real” jobs, usually have low pay and scheduling conflicts that inhibit study time and environments.

    Watch your friends. Pick good roommates. As a poor student you are in the same economic level with a lot of people, but you have higher values. Pick good friends. Don’t smoke, get tattoos, make children out of wedlock, avoid traffic tickets (especially DWI’s) and don’t lend your stuff or money to “losers”. This is a time to worry about yourself first, someone else has to help them, you can’t do it til later.

    It is rare for even the richest students to finish in four years, at a state school. Accept the fact that some classes will be filled, and you will graduate a few months later.

    1. Excellent contributions to the conversation, Mike. Thanks!

      I’m not sure I’d go so far as to rule out a degree “that is not an economic practicality.” If there is a way to get the necessary training for one of those less than lucrative occupations other than an expensive four year college then I’d advise someone pursue that. I’m not suggesting students pick careers based on their financial value. The thing I’m advocating is 1) picking the education path you need, and 2) finding ways to get the education you need without going into debt.

      You brought up a very interesting point about the suitability of a city for working your way through college based on its size. What would you say is an ideal size, or size range?

  2. Admittedly, I wrote an overly simplified pathway for a person of limited means. I would agree, many low paying fields have pathways that do not involve expensive degrees, and those ways are worth investigating. For example, law school is not a requirement – http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/03/education/edlife/how-to-learn-the-law-without-law-school.html

    I think there is a gray area between picking a profession solely on it’s economic benefit, versus having a realistic view of your financial situation. I think most people would be content in a number of fields, knowing that life nowadays allows you a decent amount of time for avocations, one of which can be your passion.

    As far as “practical size”, I worked my way thru college in Dallas, which had a low cost of living, plenty of diverse jobs, a flexible night school (UT Arlington) and a good road system. A metro area between 2 million and 6 million seems to be what works.

    I have thought of creating a “module” for teaching undergraduates, about how to get your degree when you run out of money, etc., at your current school. Part of that module would be how to pick a place to live. There are probably only a dozen of these cities, based on differing majors, that would have the jobs, the schools with good schedules and the geography/traffic mix that is efficient.

    As a parent of a lot of kids, there are two options you can explore. One is denominational schools, which sometimes subsidize children of pastors. The second is to work for a large university (that your kids are likely to get accepted to) and get discount tuition for employees.

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