If I were more conspiracy-minded I would think the American college finance system is a plot to make young people unable to marry and start families. At the age of eighteen you are making one of the most important decisions of your life, and that’s not even which college to attend. It’s how to pay for school.
From the time I was a little kid I heard about the United Negro College Fund. I’ve heard about scholarships for black and Hispanic and even Asian students. There are scholarships for women going to college, and increasingly with the push to get women into STEM fields there is more financial incentive given to women to undertake these increasingly overcrowded majors.
But what about white men? And if you do decide college is for you how do you go about paying for it? What do you major in? Is it worth it in the long run?
Well there are three basic options when it comes to paying for college. First you can pay out of pocket. I should rephrase that. “Theoretically” you can pay out of pocket. Most of the people with this kind of money come from schools like Chote, Princeton Day Academy, Sidwell Friends, and on the west coast, Crossroads. These kids have no problem paying for college as it was always assumed they would go.
On a side note, being Gen X, I always assumed my parents had some college fund saved up for me that I would inherit at eighteen. Boy, was I wrong. The only students with that kind of stash tended to be the ones who name drop their prep school not their Ivy League business school.
A corollary to the pay out of pocket paradigm is the notion that you can get a part time job and use that to pay for school. This is a little more feasible especially if you go to a public university. I paid for my undergrad by working for a professor on a work-study program, in addition to having a number of scholarships. But increasingly, the money a student can earn at a part time, or work-study job, isn’t going to be enough to cover the full cost of tuition.
Scholarships exist, but many are tied to ethnicity, gender, sexuality and other things readers of this article probably can’t get because of the circumstances of birth.
That leaves the road that most American college students travel: student loans.
As of February of this year student loan debt is nearly twice what credit card debt is.
The interest rate may be lower, and financial guru’s giving online advice may be more inclined to tell young people to pay off their credit cards first, but the fact that 44 million people owe student loan debt in a country of just over 300 million should raise an alarm in the mind.
Before you decide on paying for college with student loans we need to talk about the types of loans available. Generally there are two versions, federal and private. And under the category of federal loans there are three versions, subsidized, unsubsidized and loans taken out by parents on the student’s behalf. (You know the baby boomers came up with this after their kids were out of college). A subsidized loan is one in which the interest is not charged while in school or deferment, an unsubsidized loan does charge interest. And if you decide to go to graduate or professional school (the next subject in this series) you will most likely end up taking out an unsubsidized loan.
However, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Taking out loans to pay for college should be your absolute last remedy to the problem of college. But here is the thing, they aren’t always enough to cover both the cost of tuition and the cost of living in the city. Many students will find themselves taking on maximum student loan debt for their college and yet still waiting tables.
And how much student loan should you take on? The rule I’ve always heard is never take on more total student loan debt than you plan to make in your first two years out of college. So if you are a journalism major and are likely to work for say 30k/year after graduation, then 60 thousand dollars should be your maximum amount to take out total. If you can’t attend college for that it would be a waste of time and an incursion into debt slavery to take out more.
Student loan debt seems like a pretty good way to get young people to enter into a life of near endless repayments, forcing them to forego buying a house or starting a family, as they will have that extra five hundred to seven hundred dollars per month to pay back, and it will take decades to repay it. This is certainly one of the driving forces behind the recent push to get young couples to live the “child free” life.
Now, before we switch topics, there is one more thing you should know about student loans when deciding on whether to take them out. They cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. That’s right, no matter what happens in your life, you’re always going to be on the hook for your student loans. Medical bills can pile up, house payments may be falling behind (if you can get one that is), and you might even lose your job. Doesn’t matter, because you are responsible for your student loan repayments. If you can’t repay them there are temporary solutions such as forbearance or deferment, but neither resolves the problem of how to pay for your education.
This brings us to a topic not often covered when talking about financing college: choice of major. This was going to be its own article, but frankly there isn’t enough material for one, and it does fit in well with financial decisions. Your major will likely have some scholarship money available to outstanding students. So when choosing your degree make sure you ask your undergraduate advisor or the head of undergraduate studies in your field about available money. Some people think it’s odd that I would have ended up with a geology undergraduate degree, but in truth, it was the product of a work-study job combined with the fact that the department had a large number of corporate sponsors who ensured that most majors had a scholarship.
And since your undergraduate major is becoming irrelevant in the current year, making the choice based upon available aid from your college or department should be a factor in deciding what to pursue. The exception to this of course is those needing a specific credential such as teaching or nursing.
Some general advice on choosing a major is this: avoid anything with the word “studies” in it, and avoid anything with the word “science” in it. Studies majors were created to deal with the overpopulation of PhDs from other subjects and things like Women’s Studies exists only to make more professors for Women’s Studies. And as for science, well real sciences don’t usually have the word “science” in them.
Interested in environmental science? That major is called ecology.
A second piece of advice, since many undergraduates will end up going to grad school you’ll need to understand that grad schools want general educations not extremely specific ones. If you’re interested in astronomy, a good degree in math or physics will be treated with as much respect as a bachelor’s degree in astronomy. And indeed earning a general degree in math or physics will open up other options that the astronomy degree won’t. You may decide down the line that you’re interested in particle physics more than the CMB cold spot. The physics degree will get you into a physics PhD whereas the astronomy degree likely will not.
Back to finances. The average cost of a public university degree in 2016 was thirty thousand dollars. And that’s just the low end of the spectrum. It also does not account for housing and food which isn’t cheap in most major American cities. Students often feel as if they have no option but to take on debt to secure that degree. And why not? My generation, Gen X, was told repeatedly by our Boomer parents that without a degree you’ll lose out on tens of thousands of dollars. But we were never told the opposite side of that equation. By attending college instead of working full time and/or learning a trade we would be sacrificing four or more years worth of income that we could be earning. Remember, when calculating the cost of your education you have to account for lost time and wages, not just the cost of tuition and living.
All of this speculation brings us to the inevitable question: with over a trillion dollars in student loan debt, what is America to do with a generation that cannot obtain jobs save for the Gap or Starbucks to repay the loans taken out due in large part to pressure from the educational industry? Frankly, there has to be an out. Whether it is a discharge through bankruptcy or a general forgiveness of everything over a certain amount, something has to give.
And before you say “they knew what they were doing when they took on the loans” remember, it’s hard to resist pressure at eighteen, especially when you’ve just spent more than a decade of your life being told you had to go to college to live a good life. In my opinion, the Millennials were conned. They were conned by the Boomers, they were conned by the government, they were conned by the banks. If the Boomers, banks and government have to take a hit so the young can get their lives back on track, so be it.