Student loans are, and probably always will be, the most recurring topic on this site (yeah, I thought it was gonna be scholarships, too. Maybe I should change the name of the site. Any suggestions?).
But that’s fine, because there are an endless number of students and parents out there with questions and dilemmas regarding student loans — and luckily for you, I have enough opinions for all of you! Bring it on, suckaz!
And so today, we continue with Amanda’s wonderfully brief question:
I read your article titled Everyone’s On Plan C, and I agree to the idea. The only concern is when you relate student debt to Plan C. While I understand that it is likely that I will change my career choice at some point in time (especially since I haven’t really chosen a path yet), what do you recommend doing in the mean time. How do we get through Plan A, or chose plan A without incurring thousands of dollars of debt.
An outstanding succinct question, to which I have an extremely wordy answer.
If you haven’t read the post she refers to and you don’t want to, I’ll summarize it. In the “Everyone’s On Plan C” post above, I advised that students of all ages cut themselves some slack if they’re feeling bad about not knowing exactly what they want to do with their lives. I said that if you ask a room full of working professionals how many of them are doing what they THOUGHT they’d be doing when they were in college, none of them would raise their hand. Life changes in ways we never expect, even though it happens to almost everyone.
No one’s on Plan A. Hell, no one’s even on Plan B. Everyone is on Plan C, at least. And some of us (yours truly included) are well into the rest of the alphabet. So don’t start feeling shitty about yourself just because you’ve come to some particular point and you still haven’t made up your mind. Shit happens. It’s the way of the world. Don’t let it beat you down.
That’s the gist of what I said. And so, today, Amanda replies: Well, sure, but how do we not go broke in the meantime while we wander through our early lives, with a bumper sticker reading “Not all who wander are lost” affixed to the back of our used-and-battered but still-serviceable car.
I’m not gonna take the easy way out and deflect the issue back to you with meaningless generic truisms like “Be Smart!” or “Know Thyself” or “Be Patient” or any of that crap. I prefer to give specific advice, at least a little bit of which I hope you can take and implement.
Let’s start with some basic assumptions.
a) Education is very expensive.
b) Whatever you want to do with your life now is, very possibly, not what you’ll end up actually doing with your life. You’ll probably change careers once or twice, at least.
c) Unless you/your family are independently wealthy, you will have to take out student loans to pay for the expensive education that you get.
d) Regardless of whether you “use” the education you get (and by “use” I mean that you employ it in the career you have, or at the very least employed it in order to *obtain* the career you have), you still have to pay for it.
e) Once you “buy” an education (whether it’s with cash or loans), it’s yours forever. That’s good and bad. It’s good because no one can ever take your education away from you, regardless of anything that happens to you in your life (barring a traumatic brain injury, I suppose).
It’s bad because, well, if you don’t use it and you still owe tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on it, you still have to pay for it and you can’t transfer it to anyone else. Unlike, say, a $60,000 used Porsche 911, which may turn out to be a foolish purchase, but at least you can post it on Craig’s List and pass it along to some other sucker and realize only a tiny loss.
OK. Now that we’ve set the tone here, let’s whip up some analogies. I think that, based on the above, it’s fair to say that the first couple years of your college life are going to have the least direction and certainty. You take general classes, you sample different majors, and a lot of you sample different colleges. Some drop out of college altogether and never come back. Clearly, many things can happen during this time.
Because of that, the early years of colleges are when you want to MINIMIZE YOUR COSTS AT ALL — WELL, COSTS.
Avoid early commitments to big, expensive programs. Here’s my poker analogy. Anybody play poker? Yeah, some of you do. OK, let’s imagine a hold ’em game. You get your first two cards dealt to you. You pick up one. It’s a king. A king’s a good card, so you don’t even pick up your second card, don’t even bother to wait for any of the community cards — you go all-in with all your chips, betting all your money without seeing one other card.
If you did this, you would be a profound idiot. Someone at the table would likely walk to the fridge, grab a full can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and lunge toward you, intending to beat you about the head and neck with the beer can.
And you would deserve this.
OK, that’s a small-stakes poker game. You would never do such a thing. But when the stakes are multiplied by 1,000, as is the case with higher education, a lot of you guys do exactly this, all the time. You do stuff like:
- Become dead certain from day one that you want a double major in philosophy and religion at a private liberal-arts school — which will cost you $65,000 in student loans.
- As a freshman, enroll in a bachelor/master’s combination program in political science — for $75,000 in loans.
- Declare a specialized major when you’ve only just recently become interested in the topic (off the top of my head, I’m thinking international relations, urban planning, art history, American Literature, etc.).
- Declare a major without thinking about or researching career options that correspond to the degree.
Sure, there are some students who do any and all of the above, their interest stays strong and they finish the programs without any regrets. But even knowing that some do succeed, by and large I still dislike those programs when they require early commitment from younger undergrads, at exactly the time where they’re the most indecisive.
So, you get students committing to the programs and dropping out (still have the debt though!), or committing to them and finishing them, but having no interest in the subject any longer (still have the debt though!). Unless you have an uncanny level of focus and commitment to these types of programs of study (and not, mind you, just a new or passing interest), avoiding these types of programs are one way to avoid taking unnecessary student loans.
When I hear about a freshman who’s already declared a triple major — it just makes me nauseous, honestly, because I see a person who’s waaaay ahead of herself and is likely going to waste a lot of money taking classes she’s going to end up not wanting later on. Yes, sometimes I end up being wrong about that — but I’d much rather see those first two years of school left a little more free and open for exploration, rather than marrying oneself to a certain, rigorous path right away.
Consider community college. At the other end of the spectrum, I’m a huge fan of community colleges for the first two years of schooling. I say this a lot: for the general-education courses that comprise most of an undergrad’s first two years, the difference in the quality of the education at a community college is small, while the financial savings are mind-boggling.
Obviously, community colleges are not as selective as four-year schools, but if you’re a motivated student, you need not give two shits about that. If you’re motivated, you’ll learn exactly what you need to know in those basic courses, and you’ll do it for about $15,000-20,000 less per year than you would at a four-year school. And of course, at community college, you pay market prices for room and board (in an apartment) instead of ridiculously inflated prices that a university will charge you for room and board.
Lay down some rules for yourself. As in, “I refuse to go into a ridiculous amount of debt in order to get what I want out of life.” You can start with that one, anyway (zero debt might be too tough). If you accept that as an absolute, and force yourself to find other ways to get the career you want, you’ll be surprised at how creative you can get.
Example: Let’s say you want to be lawyer. You’re thinking, four-year degree, then three years of law school. Well, the three years of law school you really can’t change — but you can find the cheapest decent, accredited law school (once you’re a lawyer and you pass the bar, you’re a lawyer like the rest of them). Then find out what your law school likes to see (which majors) in its applicants. Take the cheapest route to a degree they like to see (see the community college section above).
And backing up even further into high school, if you’re at one of the many schools that has a partnership with a local university that allows you to get college credits while you’re in high school, go for it. Sometimes you can get your school district to pay for those courses. Not always, but it’s worth looking into.
That’s just one example. Maybe you guys can give me some more in the comments section.
Test out. If you can “test out” of any required courses once you get to school, do it. Classes you don’t have to take are classes you don’t have to pay for.
Ruthlessly evaluate your risk and reward. This is pretty good advice for your entire life, actually, not just college. For any major, degree or even college whose focus is very narrow (say, a women’s studies major, an interior design degree, or an Art Institute, or something like that) — be very honest when you evaluate the risk (cost, time, narrower career options) of taking such a degree. If you look at a computer-animation degree from the Art Institute and realize that yes, with this degree, I’m going to have to stick with computer animation until the bills are paid off, and I’m ok with that — then go for it.
After all, if you end up being a risk-taker, that’s OK. I’m not anti-risk. I’m anti-UNINFORMED risk. Ruthlessly and heartlessly evaluate your risk before your proceed.
Do half of the above stuff, Amanda, and you might just avoid big bills while you figure out what you want to do with your life.
Anyone else have suggestions? Comments? Let me know in the comments below.