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Is the “College Experience” Worth Student Loan Debt?

The following is a guest post from Emily Guy Birken.  She is a freelance writer, occasional BFS guest poster, and regular contributor to PTMoney: Personal Finance.  She lives in Lafayette, Indiana, with her mechanical engineer husband and toddler son. Her musings on life, parenting, and money can be found at The SAHMnambulist and Live Like a Mensch.

Our Views on College

For the nine years we have known each other, my husband and I have disagreed about the point of an undergraduate degree.  I, who attended idyllic Kenyon College and double majored in English (with an emphasis in Creative Writing) and French Literature, feel that college is supposed to be a time of learning and growing without worrying about what comes next.  My husband, who graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering (and walked from the commencement stage into a great job with a major auto manufacturer), feels that you go to school so that you can get a job.

In effect, we represent the two ends of the philosophical spectrum of higher education.  While I’d be taking the fate of my marriage in my hands if I were to try (again) to argue for the rightness of one of these positions (mine), I do think it’s important to examine the pros and cons of each.  In my capacity as a personal finance writer, I have been known to advise people to save money on college by living at home, going to community college for the pre-requisites, or putting college off—so I think I ought to explain why I did none of those things.  And why I have no regrets.

What I Lost By Being a Prototypical College Student

When I graduated from college in 2001, I carried over $18,000 in student loan debt, nearly $2,000 in credit card debt, and my beloved but impractical majors meant I had no job and no prospects when I received my degree.  It took me nearly three months to find the job I would end up keeping off and on over the next four years—working as a bookseller for Barnes & Noble for $8.25/hour ($16,500/year).

I lived paycheck to paycheck for several years.  While I was able to build up a $1000 emergency fund, pay off my credit card debt, and always pay my student loan each month, I also hit up the bank of Mom and Dad more often than I care to admit and I did not put a single cent away for retirement.

This was also a tough time for me psychologically.  Many of my friends who had gone into different fields seemed to be making a mark, while I was simply improving my reading list.

What I Gained From the College Experience

On the other hand, even as I was jealous of friends who seemed closer to being “real grownups,” I never regretted my time at a small liberal arts school studying something without an obvious practical application.  While I was always a pretty good student, being able to choose my majors helped me kick my studying into overdrive.  I spent four years immersed in academic pursuits that I found fascinating, and I worked my rear end off because of it.  That experience has taught me what kind of work ethic I can expect from myself—provided I’m interested in the topic.  It also showed me the importance of doing work you care about, because then you never work a day in your life.

I also formed some incredible relationships during my college years, which would have been impossible had I been focused on a job or financial goal.  When I got married at Kenyon in 2008, my favorite professor hosted our rehearsal dinner on his front lawn, and two of my bridesmaids were girls who lived down the hall from me Freshman year.

My time at Kenyon is inseparable from who I am as an adult.  It helped to shape my intellect, personality, loves, relationships, and work ethic.  I cannot imagine my life without my time at Kenyon.

The Bottom Line

I recognize that not everyone can have the incredible college experience that I had.  I also know that I did pay a price during my twenties for my four years at college.  I would do it all again in a heartbeat, for the same $20,000 price tag.  But as I read about students graduating with $25,000, $60,000 and even $200,000 in student loan debt, I know that there is an upper limit to what a college experience is worth.  I also know that I could not have made the decisions I did without the help and financial support of my family.

If you can afford the college experience, both during your four years at university and as you pay down student debt afterwards, then I certainly feel that personal growth is an important part of becoming an adult.  But if money is tight, recognize that the education you receive does not have to be expensive to be worthwhile—and there will always be opportunities to learn more about yourself throughout your life.  I was lucky, and I know it.

(Note to my husband: This still does not mean that you are right.)

Crystal’s Comments:  I am torn.  I know that my college experience was odd.  I worked all the way through…heck, I spent my last semester taking 12 hours of classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays and working 3 part-time jobs Monday-Saturday for a total of 50-60 hours per week depending on the week.  And I had multiple scholarships.  But I still graduated with $8000 of debt to my parents that they forgave a few months after graduation.  So, I definitely saw college as a way to get a job or I wouldn’t have attended. 

BUT, I also met some amazing people, including my husband.  And I laughed and cried in the dorms and the on-campus apartments as friendships formed and ended.  So I completely think that college is a place to grow and form relationships too. 

Overall, I am pro-college for whatever reason works for you.

How do you see college?

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27 comments to Is the “College Experience” Worth Student Loan Debt?

  • I went to both College and University and I have no regrets. I was fortunate in that I worked for two companies that paid for most of my tuition and books. I worked for my entire College/University education which of course helped.

    I do feel for all of those students who have massive debts and can’t find jobs after graduating. It makes the students coming up behind them ask themselves if it’s really worth it.

  • I lie somewhere between your view of college and that of your husband. My fiancee (Penny) and I graduated in May 2011 with bachelor’s degrees (she got two!), and we’re currently attending graduate school. So far, we’ve found no need for debt.

    The main money saver was community college. We were able to spend two years paying under $500 per semester each for tuition and fees. By working hard through these two years, living frugally, and putting that money in the bank, we had a decent amount of savings going into our four year degrees. We worked through the entire college process.

    I’m not claiming everyone can get through college debt free. We each received a few rather generous scholarships throughout the process, which not everyone can get. Some degrees (engineering comes to mind) have a notoriously longer process that leaves relatively little time to work outside of schoolwork.

    However, community college still cuts the price of tuition drastically, and it won’t hurt you in the long run. Penny and I are both pursuing PhDs with full support, and nobody has ever negatively commented on our time at community college. We do hear a little jealousy about our lack of debt, though :)

  • I went to two private colleges and graduated in three years, but still came out with over $45,000 in debt – and that has grown in the years since because of interest.

    My first school was worth the $10,000 for the same reasons as above, as well as opening a small town girl’s eyes to many different cultures.

    But my second school was NOT worth the expense. I only wanted a Bachelor’s Degree and didn’t care about what major it took to get me there. I should have finished my education at a state school for 1/3 of the cost.

    Now I am married and staying home with the children while they are young. The student loan bills are on deferment and racking up interest. It’s awful.

  • I didn’t have a complete college experience. Yes I hung out with friends and had fun, but I had a full-time managerial job and took classes full-time. I don’t regret a thing though!

  • I personally think college is up to the individual. Its not for everyone especially not 4 year college. Some people would be better off at a 2 year school doing a trade or certification program. Less debt and some make really great money. However with that said college was/is a great life experience and many end up meeting life long friends and spouses.

    Don’t think I would say the “experience” is worth the debt unless your debt is a minimum. But for a lot of people even those who(until recently) graduate with 50k in debt you i see it as being worth it. College education is like an investment. if you owe 50K in loans when you graduate and get a job in your field making 30-40k a year then within a few years college as paid for itself. The problem however is that we don’t include that debt a something important. Fancy cars and clothing come before paying off the loan that just builds and builds.

  • I’m torn over this, too – just within myself! I went to a small private liberal arts college, studied something useful/employable, and my parents picked up most of the tab so I got the best of all worlds. If you can afford to give your child that idyllic college experience so she can focus on her studies and not work (for pay) much, I think that’s best. But if you can’t, you have to find those other thrifty ways of paying for the education – attending community college and then a state university, the student working part- or full-time, taking the minimum number of courses, living off-campus. I don’t think it’s wise for a student to go $150k in debt for an undergraduate degree no matter what the major.

  • I am all for college but have a plan and make sure you can have a decent shot at a good job out of college. In addition the the loans you rack up you also have the lost opportunity cost of better wages at a college graduate job (easily 2 to 3 times more than 8.25 an HR)

  • Why can’t it be both? I think college is supposed to do a lot of things. If you major in liberal arts does not make you unemployable, but you have to find a career where your major will work for you. I once had a boss (president) who majored in English. He used his major to enter marketing and was very successful. I believe he went into a training program to learn the skills.

  • Michelle

    I was always told that you go to school for your education and that if you work/study hard now you can party later. I worked my butt off getting my BS and my MS in engineering (BS was paid for my parents and scholarships and MS was paid for by the school). I made some friends during undergrad (mainly my husband) and a best friend in graduate school, but my closest friends are still the ones from high school. I wasn’t in school to make (or buy) friends, I wanted an education.
    After I graduated with my MS, with a good job, I was able to “party”–my version of partying was being able to afford what I wanted and travel where I wanted. I have noticed with younger siblings, they are doing the “normal college partying” route, and are struggling to keep it all together and will probably struggle to get a job. To each his/her own, although it would have been nearly impossible to graduate with an engineering degree while partying and hope to get a job coming out of school in 2008/2009.

  • I didn’t like the “college experience”. I knew when I went to college I would never join a fraternity, but I saw fraternity signups/recruiting/whatever you want to call it all over the place, and lots of parties and activities were sponsored by them as well. It made me feel really ugh about the whole situation. I mean, you have to buy your friends.

  • I wouldn’t trade college for anything. At the very worst, it’s an expensive way for 18 year olds to turn into 22 year olds.

  • I guess I’m just really blessed. I went to a four year college, had all the normal college experiences and still managed to walk out of there with a degree and soon a job doing what I loved. I’m not sure why others have such a hard time pursuing something they love with no expectations of costs later. You just need to be practical and save money where you can, I went out of state, so I became an RA to offset the cost of living.

  • College is where I met my mechanical engiNERD husband ;) and started a relationship with God, so I’d say it was worth it! I know a lot of people from high school who didn’t go away to college and have yet to grow up. I was an RA too and came out with $30k in student loans which I paid off in 9 months from my husband & my full time jobs we got out of college. Totes worth it.

  • I think College is about more than learning a trade… If people want to learn a trade, then go to a trade school, not college.

    But if people want wonderful experiences and want to become more rounded so they can become an awesome online entrepreneur (like you), then college is definitely something to consider.

    Personally, college enabled me to develop in ways that I never dreamed of… I’m a better person for it (or so I believe).

  • In a way I was very lucky – I worked almost full time and lived with my parents, saving thousands. I graduated with no debt (but a very bad GPA, my own fault). But I had my degree, and in the long run it paid off. Friends and the social experience? Not as much, but more by choice because I’m an introvert. :)

    I’m trying to help my son do the same thing I did – he can live at home and attend the best University in our province, so tuition and books are all we need to cover. He will have to work, but he should be able to graduate debt free. Again, I think it will be worth it. But if he had to borrow $30,000+? I’m not so sure.

  • I agree with Crystal — I’m torn.

    I escaped college without any debt, thanks to a combination of scholarships, part-time jobs, and parental contributions. I also majored in a field that led to zero career prospects.

    If I was taking on debt in order to get my college degree, would I have picked a different major? It’s impossible to say with any certainty … but probably, yes, I would have. If I had to borrow money for college, I’d be thinking more about how to pay it back.

  • Hmm. Late to the party, but my two cents:

    I got a full scholarship, and I worked about 20 hours a week along with full courseload to graduate debt free (plus qualified for a student allowance). My degree while not all that prestigious was well recognised in the field and had a big practical component. I got a great part time job in the industry while studying and that turned into a full time position afterward. I didn’t live in the student dorms or anything – but out in the suburbs with my boyfriend. I guess I missed out on a big part of the typical uni student lifestyle, but I’m okay with that – I’m not a big drinker or partier and I’m not super social.

    I would probably be a more well-rounded and generally knowledgable person if I’d done a straight BA. But I’d probably als obe unemployed or underemployed now.

  • Robyn

    I went to community college for two years, and a state college for two years (+1 extra for my teaching credential). Am I sad that I missed the “college experience?” Absolutely. Did I come out of college without one cent in student loans? Yes, I did, with money to spare. There is something to be said for both, but I’m glad that I’m starting my career without having to spend a portion of my paycheck on loans.

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