Surprised at the staunch defense of student loans

I was surprised at the staunch defense of student loans in the comments on a previous post.

Here’s where I’m coming from. I got a $10,000 scholarship my senior year of high school that I could use anywhere. Back in 1986, $10,000 was a lot. But it would pay for 4 full years of tuition, books, & fees at the closest (highly-ranked) state school at home, or it would pay for less than a semester of tuition at the out-of-state private school I was also considering. (No fees, no living expenses, no books, no rest of the tuition.) I decided on the in-state school, for ridiculous reasons mainly, but also because hey — free college? Duh.

My parents offered to pay for me to live in a dorm, but I didn’t think I could stand being crammed into a tiny room with a roommate, so I lived at home for the first couple of years. I also worked while attending school — I’d been doing that since I was fourteen, and didn’t see any reason to stop. Good thing, too, because it ended up taking me 5 years to graduate. I paid for the last year myself from my $9ish an hour job, and graduated without any student loans.

Things could have been different in many ways. I COULD have gone to the private school and spent a large fortune that I didn’t have on tuition, living expenses, and cold-weather coats & boots. I COULD have been a sucky student and attended a community college instead until I got my grades up, and then paid for the state school myself instead of getting a scholarship. I COULD have applied for hundreds and hundreds of scholarships and hopefully gotten enough of them to pay for the private school. My parents COULD have saved up and funded school for me (and for all I know, they did save up for that purpose.) I COULD have joined the armed forces and had the government pay for my school. I COULD have worked full time for a couple of years while I lived at home and saved up for school or worked for an employer who would pay my way. Etc.

I just didn’t WANT to do any of those things.

The point is, there are many many many options out there. And yes, one of those options is taking out student loans.

I attended graduate school as well, after working for a few years. The first year was paid for by my employer. The second year was paid for by a student loan large enough to cover tuition, books, fees, and living expenses. Why? Because I didn’t feel like working then.

And that’s the thing. I could have gotten my graduate degree for free with just a little more effort, but I didn’t feel like it. I wanted the experience of just going to school for once in my life. And it was a great experience. It was a lot of fun. Was it worth the money I borrowed? Probably. Was it the best choice? Certainly not, financially speaking.

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But it was a choice, and not the default one. I didn’t just assume that the only way for me to attend graduate school was to take out a loan. And I’m not rationalizing my choice to take out a student loan by saying “well but it’s not easy to blah blah blah”. You’re right. It’s NOT easy. It’s just POSSIBLE. Entirely possible, depending on the choices you make.

Would it have been worth it to me to take out loans for 5 years of undergraduate and both years of graduate school? No way, no how. Ugh. I shudder at the thought. Would that have been bad debt, especially considering that the only thing my B.S. ended up being good for was getting into graduate school? Yes. I don’t want to even IMAGINE having paid many thousands of dollars in principal and interest + opportunity cost to have the good job I have now that does not require a degree of any sort.

But since knowing whether or not your student loan debt was worth it to you is something that can only be done in retrospect, why not make as many choices up front as possible to minimize or prevent it instead? I’ve never heard anyone say that their life went exactly as planned. And I’ve never heard anyone say that they regret graduating without a pile of debt.

View Comments (4)
  • The problem with this whole argument is that an average state school is going to cost over $10K PER YEAR plus all the miscellaneous expenses. Even with some scholarships (and most of the scholarships are not that big anymore…they are nickel and dime scholarships that 10,000 people are competing for) and a crappy part-time job, you’ll still end up with loans…or pray for your parents to go into debt for you.

    I’m in grad school and I don’t know one single person who graduated in the last 5 years who did not have some type of student loan debt. Some only had $5000 or $10,000 while others had $100,000….but they all had student loans. My lab mate lived at home, her parents paid for part of her tuition and they paid for her car…and she still has about 20K in debt.

    In fact….anyone out here reading graduate with ZERO student loans in the last 5 years who did NOT have parental help or an athletic scholarship?

  • Yes, I know that a state school might run $10,000 per year. The closest one to us is currently at $5,409 per year for the 2008-2009 school year. Add in another $1000 for books & fees, and you’ve got $6409 per year. Which, based on the CPI inflation calculator is not really a whole lot more than when I attended the same school for $2500 per year.

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that a person can’t come up with $6500 or so per year. And no, that’s not including living expenses, because you have to live somewhere no matter what. And you can live cheaply with roommates. So that’s about $541 per month per year to graduate debt-free. How much are people paying per month on their student loans for a decade or more? Is it near that number? What about total with interest?

    I am assuming $10k per year for my son, and think it’s completely doable, with some caveats (live at home, go to a local school, don’t buy a fancy car with payments, ride a bike if parking is too much, work during the summers and breaks, start saving early)

    What I don’t understand is why it’s not even considered POSSIBLE. Just like it’s possible to pay cash for a car. Maybe most people don’t do it, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

    My brother graduated last year without student loans. His work paid for it.

  • I’m not saying it’s NOT possible….but is it possible for him to do that without having to work a job that might compromise his education? I’m all for kids working during college (a very strong proponent of it), but not above a point where it affects performance.
    What would you do if your son said “Hey, I want to have better opportunities and go to the more expensive school?”
    I guess I just feel that college is one of the most important periods in a person’s life…and going cheap on it is the same thing as buying the cheap car that breaks down a month later.

    Good for your brother…..was he 18 and fresh out of high school? It’s rare for employees to pay someone to attend school full-time during the day ! Usually people work during the day, attend school at night, and then sign away their right to work for anyone else for a period of 3-5 years.

  • I would question whether the opportunities would really be better or not. If he still wanted to, well, he’d have to make his own choices.

    My brother was not 18. He worked during the day and attended school at other times.

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