Calibrating and Circumventing the Cost of College

It’s a common refrain that today’s college graduates are entering into the worst job market and economy since Hoover was around. We’re told that an undergraduate degree means less than what a high school diploma once was, yet we’re investing more in school than ever before. Post college debt is a major emotional weight on the backs of this newest generation, and colleges encourage debt with ease — don’t worry about it; you don’t have to pay it off until after you’ve graduated and have a well-paying job.

We’re sold on it and it’s a hard sell, not only by schools, but by the banks’ ad dollars, as well. Previous generations didn’t start life with so much debt, and in the middle of a job-killing recession no less. You probably aren’t going to pay off that kind of debt waiting tables. Realize that college debt most likely means postponing life goals such as mortgage, car, marriage, and maybe even children.

Good-to-know facts about college debt
How big of a problem is the cost of college? Consider the following:

  • The amount America owes in student loans exceeds the nation’s credit card debt.
  • According to, average student debt has increased nearly threefold in the past two decades, from $9,320 after graduating to $27,204.
  • In the year 2000, the nation owed $198.32 billion. In 2010, the number rose to $832.99 billion, more than four times what it was only a decade ago.
  • Declaring bankruptcy can free you of your mortgage, car loan, and consumer debt, but not your college loans.

Finally, unlike most other debts, many college loans survive your death.

How much college debt is too much?
So let’s get this out of the way first — whether you’re a parent or a student, college debt is not something to worry about later. Don’t take out excessive amounts of loans unless you know your first steps to getting it paid off. What’s excessive amounts of debt? The advice I received was making sure that debt didn’t amount to more than a year’s salary in my chosen field. Don’t take out $10,000 a year in loans if you’re looking to work for a non-profit after graduating.

Scholarship essays
I knew I didn’t want to spend time in a 500-person lecture hall. That was a huge priority for me. But with smaller class sizes comes larger tuition costs. This was the first time I had to start closing doors. I always did well in math and science classes, but I knew that I didn’t want 50 years of them in my future. I had fulfilled the math and science requirements for most of the programs that piqued my interest during preliminary research. I dropped my AP statistics class and used the period to enroll in an independent study in essay writing with an English teacher I had had earlier in my high school career.

Every week, I sat alone for four days and wrote essays. At the end of the week, the teacher and I would get together and review them. Yes, it did help to prepare me for the incredible amount of writing I would do in college, but perhaps more importantly, every single week, I chose one to three scholarship application essays and applied. The essays ranged from reviews of classics to thoughts on racial reconciliation, from 400-word essays about how I’d fix the AIDS crisis in Africa (Fix it in 400 words? Really?) to why I use Gillette for all my shaving needs. I knew that every dollar I received was an interest-free dollar I wouldn’t have to pay back later.

Yes, $250 might be a small amount off the thousands in loans, but that’s one month after graduating I wouldn’t have to pay, and if I earned 10 scholarships suddenly I’ve got my first year of debt paid off. That said, scholarships be can be in excess of $10,000 for your first year on the higher end. Check out websites like Fastweb and FinAid! to find scholarship essays and contests that work for you. Most high schools have listings of local organizations that offer scholarships, whether it be a rotary club or a local arts foundation. The money is out there. And scholarships shouldn’t stop with your first year. Some listings are for current college students. Research, write, and go claim it.

Colleges invest in their upperclassmen
Most universities, even ones that claim to not offer any merit-based scholarships, offer more and more need-based financial help as students increase in seniority. At my alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College, despite the shocking initial sticker price being among the most expensive schools in the country (if not the top of the list), Sarah Lawrence gets increasingly generous with her in-house aid. By my senior year, I was paying less than a third out-of-pocket than what I paid my freshman year.

With fewer and fewer college freshman graduating in a timely process, it makes sense that schools would want to invest in those looking to actually complete the program. Inquire about averages from your potential school’s financial aid department.

So what now?
Unfortunately, most articles you read about staggering college debt offer little in the way of solutions and often end up concentrating on the bigger problem of the higher education system. That’s great, and should definitely be addressed, but what do we do now?

  • Parents, if you just had a child, put money in a college fund. Get the cheaper crib and invest the rest toward college. Also, do everything you can to learn the ins and outs of the FAFSA. If you’re interested, we can cover this in a later post. Okay, onto us kids…
  • If you’ve just graduated, you’re used to things like roommates and a rather low cost-of-living. Stick with it. No need to upgrade yet. For a $20,000, the minimum to pay off monthly is $200 over 10 years. Find the roommate, pay an extra $100 a month toward your loan, and you’re debt free in six years instead of 10. Find a loan calculator online to see how long it’ll take you to pay off your debt with different monthly payments.
  • Get someone else to pay for it. Join AmeriCorps or Teach for America if you can be eligible for grants to help pay off your loans.
  • Use any bonuses, raises, and gift money to pay a little more on a monthly payment. It’ll keep the interest in check.
  • Delay the real world. There are masters programs that offer grants for tuition and yearly stipends (many will equal the salary of an entry level job) . I’m not recommending taking out more money for grad school, but rather, find a grad school that will help you defer the interest on your loans while you still save to pay for them.
  • Get creative. After graduating, I worked as an au pair (childcare provider) for a year. I didn’t pay for housing or food, had to clean up a lot of peanut butter, and got to study algebra while receiving a small weekly stipend. I took on a second job while the kids were at school. I had two incomes and zero expenses. There’s no reason you can’t get creative and most employers are excited by a little life experience before entering into the job field.

Whichever college you end up choosing, truly choose it. We can argue about whether or not college is a necessity. We can argue if the high sticker prices at many schools are worth it. That said, at the point you decide that the investment is worth it, treat it as such.

Some people have the impression of liberal arts students lounging around talking about old books and goofing off for four years, coming out with a degree that is not economically viable. If you’re looking to pay off college loans into your 40s, go ahead and do that. Or, put your passion, intelligence, and unfaltering work-ethic into everything you pursue, and your degree will prepare you to navigate an ever changing world. With a liberal arts degree, you won’t be able to make, design, or build widgets for your given company, but you’ll be able to think critically about where the widget’s place is in society, the future of the widget, and the direction in which the widget maker needs to go. Ultimately, that’s the work of CEOs.

In a society where we’re sold on the fact that college is essential whatever the cost, it makes sense that those who don’t consciously choose their education would be resentful of the package of goods sold and the debt to follow. College degrees no longer directly equate dollar signs and zeros at the end of salaries, but instead can account for the x-factors — the intangibles of life fulfillment and the ability to do a job and not just get a job. Stand behind your investment. Put a lot of time, research, and perhaps money into your education, and it will pay you back.

What are some of your stories, good or bad, about college debt? What are some helpful hints you’ve come across?
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