The Challenge of Avoiding Student Debt

Laura McKenna has a piece up at The Atlantic which joins the chorus of voices across the internet and print media that are examining the realities of student debt. It’s painful to read, especially as the father of a college freshman. When my daughter started looking at colleges we told her that she could go anywhere she wanted so long as it didn’t require that we borrow money to pay for it. So she settled on a state school. Here’s the rough math for one school year:

Tuition + books                        $11,000

Pell Grant                                  – $5,000

State Aid                                    -$2,500

Other Aid                                   – $1,500

Work study job                       – $3,800

____________________________

                                                      + $1,800

 

Since we had a college fund in place, we were able to swing that money over into room & board so she could have the ‘on-campus’ experience for at least one year. That was important to us to help her establish herself as a grown-up. On top of this she has an off-campus job that generates some disposable income during the week and will pad her college fund during the summer.

Federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour. Working full-time that is a gross of $15,080 per year. Tough to make the math work at a state university, but spending two years at a community college softens that blow. The community college I attended costs roughly $4,000 for one year. Believe me when I say that if we didn’t have the means for our daughter to attend a university without  debt, she would have gone the community college route while we saved our pennies.

This is not a how-to post. I understand everyone’s situations are different and grants are not always easy to obtain, but I do think there are still debt-free options for kids willing to work hard and explore their options. They simply need to ignore the PR that says student loans are a typical part of the college experience. It’s not.

 

 

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29 thoughts on “The Challenge of Avoiding Student Debt

  1. I understand your point, but I also think it’s a bit of defeatism to say, “yeah, unless you’re upper-middle-class or rich, it’s probably too expensive to have the full college experience of going to a big state school without worry, so better to go to a community college where there’s a 50/50 shot you’ll be stuck in a class full of people treating it like it’s 13th grade.”

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    • But you don’t have to treat it like it’s 13th grade even if your peers do. Moreover, I can testify from personal experience that the first year of college for first-time-away-from-home 19-year-olds presented with functionally untrammelled access to the entire imaginable suite of intoxicants is, for many people, less conducive to study and learning than would be the 13th grade.

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      • There was once a freshman at college. Let’s call him “Yorat”. Yorat was one of those kids who found high school ridiculously easy. Graduated with enough college credit (via AP classes) to be technically a sophmore, had a nice full ride to a very good flagship state school.

        Yorat lived on campus, in the dorm for honors students. Every student in there came to college with at least 12 hours of college credits already, had serious scholarships based purely on academic performance, and were used to being the top 1% in their schools. These were, in short, kids who considered 1400 SAT’s to be “low average” (on the old scale).

        Year after year, it had the lowest GPA average on campus. Half the students pulled 4.0s. Half the students pulled, oh, 0.0s through 1.0s. College is a massive shock to students, most especially to those who had never had to struggle or really work in school before.

        Yorat lasted a year, went to community college for two years while he got his head on straight, then finished his BS and later a Master’s. (If in a different field than he’d originally intended. Yorat’s abstract math was not so good. Diffy-Q was quite a struggle).

        College is like that for a lot of kids. you’re 19. They don’t care if you show up to class (and you don’t see the consequences until grades are out), you don’t have to be at school at 8:00 Am all day, you don’t have teachers or parents reminding you to work, and you’re surrounded by other people your age.

        It’s not just beer and sex – -it’s community, in a sense. It’s “I was one of two people at my school that loved war games or D&D. They have a club here with 100 students just like me…” (although the latter perhaps not so much as it used to be, thanks to the internet).

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        • Is this really true?

          Maybe it says something about where I went to high school (well-to-do suburb) and undergrad (small elite liberal arts college) but I hear about these stories more than I know about them actually happening. Almost everyone I know went to a four-year college or university right after high school and almost all of them graduated with in the requisite four years. For my Master and J.D. programs, we all graduated on time except those that failed or dropped out.

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          • Knew someone over at Clairmont College in California: my friend had her entire group of friends drop out. Repeatedly (they called her the ITR pixie–“invited to retire”). Most of the kids came back after a year or so, I guess…

            I didn’t see many people drop out at CMU, maybe a couple.

            Grades really do slide, though…

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        • These days, any kids with a 1400+ SAT test who is going to school on a scholarship is probably an undermatch and is at a school that is too easy. A 1400 SAT kid should be at a top 20 school and majoring in a hard subject. Being in the honors dorm at enormous state university is a mistake for many kids.

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      • Perhaps. There is also the bottom of the Ivy Tower viewpoint as offered on the net a few years ago.

        And hopefully the students won’t be caught by underbudgeting, not being able to get all their classes, having their transfer institution make them retake classes, etc. Did ever hear the horror stories about people trying to graduate from SFState?

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      • it seems a bit odd to single out community colleges, many of which are packed with adults who already work for a living and are more goal-oriented as far as their education is concerned, as being more likely to be beset with jackassery. there are plenty of well-regarded private schools filled with that kind of silliness.

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    • I agree with Burt here. College is what you make of it I experience in community college was a very positive one and in some ways I enjoyed it more than University. And yes it sucks if you’re not upper middle class and can’t have a complete college experiencein but in my opinion that just gives you more motivation to do well for yourself. On top of that I’m not saying that you cant go to University, I’m just saying that you have to delay the experience until you can afford it.

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      • I would also add that it least in the eastern United States community colleges have a pretty good reputation. Nearly all of my professors in community college held a PhD. Comparing them to the professors I head in the University they stacked up just as well and in some cases better

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    • Jaysus Christ! I TUTORED at a community college.
      They’re MORE likely to have a bunch of dedicated folks in class, not LESS.
      Because you go to community college if you’re a garbageman, or a chef,
      or half a dozen other professions. These are people who are working multiple jobs
      and then coming to class.

      Yeah, I’d probably make my kid take at least a few night classes, if they went to community college.

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  2. Those are very similar numbers to my son’s state college.
    Except his grant was $1,000, leaving loans to pick up the rest. And with a full time course load he was only able to swing part time piece work.

    So he is graduating in June, but carrying about $20K in loans. Not horrendous, but more than I would wish.

    I suppose one question for us all is how we view a college education- is it something that has value and utility for all of society, and that we want to enact policies that make it universally achievable?

    Or is it a consumer good, and we are content with an outcome that restricts it to only a few?

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    • Liberty,

      We got lucky on the grants. If we had used my tax returns she would have gotten very little in aid, however the federal rules stipulate that if parents have joint custody the child may use the tax returns of whichever parent makes less. Since her mother has a low-paying job that got her the maximum grant. This is where a hardcore conservative would tell me I am freeloading off government entitlements but I see Pell grants as a worthy investment. I’m proof of that because with them I have become a reliable contributor to the federal tax revenue.

      As to questions of value – Megan McArdle asked those questions in her Newsweek cover story. She talked about the difference in degrees as a marker of basic employability characteristics or as proof of true acquired knowledge. The problem is that employers are using them more for the first category, which increases demand for degrees, which is subsidized by Uncle Sam, which drives increasing tuition costs, etc. It’s a bad cycle and very similar to the housing bust.

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      • You and she are freeloading. Not that I mind. The alternative is to have her work jobs until she’s, oh, about 25 or so. Then if she hasn’t made enough money, the government will pick up her tab (because you don’t make much with just a high school education)

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      • I begrudge no one their Pell grants. It kills me to see how expensive college education has gotten. When I graduated UC Santa Barbara in 1980, tuition and fees were less than $1000 a year. My stepson should graduate UC Davis this coming June. Tuition and fees now run close to $15,000 a year. Gaah!

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        • BTW. He’ll graduate with about $5000 in student loan debt but that’s only because he went to an out-of-state public university for the first year. My husband and his ex were dumb enough to let him, so had to pay out the nose for tuition. The kid had B grades, a lousy SAT score, and no idea what he wanted to study. The money would have been much better spent on a community college or on one of the Cal State universities he got into (and which would have cost one-third less).

          Sore subject around our house.

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          • As I said to Burt, I am not sure that Cal State is a good investment anymore. The budget crisis seems to have caused a lot of damage and kids are graduating late because necessary classes are overbooked or cancelled.

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            • That’s true at some Cal States but not others. San Diego State and Long Beach are notoriuos for being impossible to graduate from in four years. My stepson went to Sacramento State for a three semesters and had no trouble getting his classes. Then he transferred to Davis because he thought it would be a better degree. It would have been a lot easier and cheaper for everyone had he spent his first couple of years at either a community college or Cal State getting in general education classes and figuring out what he wanted to major in.

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      • Pell grants are not freeloading, by nearly any definition.

        In my case, I received generous Pell grants in the 1980’s, and in any single year, pay more in federal taxes than I ever received in grants. Had I not gone to college, my income- and income taxes-would be a fraction of what it is now.

        Which is what drives my question- are we better off if college becomes a luxury good, or are we better off if it is widely available?

        The rising cost of college has more drivers to it than generous financial assistance; in most cases, spending and budget management of colleges is within the power of state taxpayers to control. Just because there are dollars floating around doesn’t mean college spending and tuition must go up.

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        • What he’s doing is cheating the system, by pretending that his daughter has fewer benefits than she has had (my opinion. obviously the system itself asks to be cheated).
          It means fewer dollars for someone else, on the margins.

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        • Lump all accredited Post -high school education into the definition of college, & I agree that it should be as widely available as possible.

          Actual bachelor degrees should difficult to acquire (either by price, or difficulty). It annoys me that within a generation, a BA/BS has become required for so many jobs, and the MA/MS is what makes you attractive.

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  3. I’ll say that if you take on a minimum of debt with a subsidized student loan, it’s not a bad call.

    But you need to be pretty witheringly honest with yourself about what you’re getting into; if your starting salary out of college for what you’re shooting at runs in the $45K range, for example, you probably don’t want to accrue much more than 20% of that sum in debt prior to graduation.

    It’s when you graduate with X times your projected salary in debt that you have real problems, for X > 0.4.

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    • Patrick,

      The way I look at post-college debt is that it is like an anchor that prevents ‘takeoff’ momentum. Even a small amount of debt can mean limited employment options for the recent graduate because they have to make their monthly payments. Especially in my daughter’s case, which will likely be some sort of liberal arts degree, we’d like her to have the option to take low-paying entry level jobs in her field as a way of getting her foot in the door. By the time I graduated I already had so many financial responsibilities (non-student loan) that it made impossible for me to live as a low-paid rookie in my field of choice. I don’t want her to be stuck in that boat.

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  4. As much as this is an unpopular opinion,

    I think student debt is worth it for getting into an elite institution like the Ivies, UChicago, MIT, CalTech, the small liberal arts colleges (Williams, Amherst, Vassar, Swarthmore, Oberlin, Kenyon, etc).

    For better or for worse, these colleges have “brand” recognition and connections out the door and really do provide an advantage. Plus the education is stellar despite what dissenters say.

    This is not to say that other schools provide a bad education but in the end a university education as pragmatic and unpragmatic aspects. The elite schools provide both at premium but the return on investment is generally very high.

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    • Pish. University of Pittsburgh has just as good a physics department (if not better) than CMU. And I could have had a free ride (with room and board) there.

      Find a decent public research institution (Penn State’s good too), and go there.

      I think most of these fools haven’t got in their head what situation we’re in right now. Debt is a good thing if you expect inflation coming up. And I most certainly do.

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      • The University of Pittsburgh has more in common with the University of Michigan, William and Mary, and other public ivies than it does with Southeastern Dakota State. There are state schools and then there are the “public Ivies”. I am not saying the state schools are necessarily bad but some of them are in a different league.

        Also different people need different educations. I went to a small, liberal arts college and needed to. I would be lost in a world of 500 person lectures just like many of my friends in law school freaked out when I told them that I was one of nine people in my track at grad school for three years. They also freaked out that every class at my undergrad was basically a de facto seminar. Most of my classmates in undergrad probably felt at home among peers for the first time during their time at the school.

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