Crippled by Student Debt

by Vered DeLeeuw · 25 comments

“My student loan debt is more than most folks’ mortgage.”

I have a blog post on my personal blog that discusses how much I hated being a lawyer, and offers ways to get out of a profession you hate. The discussion in the comments section is fascinating, and heartbreaking, because so many young people are feeling trapped in a profession they hate, because they must repay huge student loans.

It’s not unheard of for a law student or a med student to amass serious debt, to the tune of $100,000 or so. And that would be OK if they earned so much after graduating that they could repay those loans fairly quickly and move on. But the sad reality is that while college graduates have traditionally earned more than high school graduates, this gap in earnings has remained stable, while college costs have skyrocketed.

Many student loans these days are also dangerously expensive, because more and more students are forced to take private loans. These loans are very different than cheap federal loans, and cannot be considered “good debt.” They are very bad debt indeed and can snowball quickly, just like credit card debt.

College used to be the middle class ticket out of the middle class – a surefire way to ensure you reached your full earning potential. But over the past decade, the ROI on college education has been declining. College is simply too expensive now.

I still raise my own kids, ages 9 and 11, with “going to college” as their ultimate education goal. I still view going to college as a way to help them reach their full potential and make sure they avoid getting stuck in low-paying occupations. But I am being realistic about it. When my younger daughter recently declared, “I want to go to Stanford!” I told her that it’s certainly an option – but that there are plenty of excellent, far more affordable schools in California and we’ll be looking at those too prior to making a decision.

I also fully plan on encouraging my kids to choose a practical degree. Learning for the sake of learning is wonderful, but not to the tune of $100,000. I could be wrong of course, but the way I see it, getting a B.A. in Greek and Latin from UCLA will not have the same ROI in terms of the career opportunities it creates as getting a B.A. in Business Economics from the same school.

I want my kids to be happy, of course – I don’t want them to do something they hate just because it’s practical. But if, when the time comes to decide on a career path and apply for college, they can’t find a degree that combines their talents and passion with real-life career opportunities, perhaps they should wait. Working for 1-2 years and gaining real-world experience and perspective before going to college is not such a bad idea.

I’m not against college – yet. For now, I still encourage my own kids to go. But unless you are wealthy, I just don’t see how a $200,000, four-year college degree makes any financial sense.

If you’re not careful with your choices, college won’t be your ticket to economic success. On the contrary: it can lead to your financial ruin.

David’s Note: My mom could not go to college because she had to work in order to support herself after high school. Thus, the idea of graduating from college was ingrained in our upbringing as one of our primary goals. Though I breezed through college without thinking too much about what I was (and wasn’t!) learning at the time, I was lucky enough to pick a field that included courses that turned out to aid my internet business. I also often reflect on the past, and many little incidents during the college years provided reference and insight into how I am and what I should improve upon as a person. And, perhaps more importantly, I made many lifelong friends, which is priceless.

Without even a tiny doubt in my mind, going to college changed my life for the better. As long as I, or my children themselves, can afford the expenses, they will be highly encouraged to attend the college of their choice.

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Victoria says:

    I am one of the first to experience what the recent graduates are experiencing. A former non-traditional student who went back to school later in life during the late 1980s, when manufacturing jobs started leaving Milwaukee. I am a member of several student loan debt Facebook groups and as part of my commitment to a solution to this problem is, a survey that I created and right now there are a 185 responses to the survey and it keeps growing. If you want to do your part, please complete the Student Loan Debt and Health Survey. Refuse to be a victim of this unjust system we have regarding student loan debt.

    Here is the link to the survey:

    It is done through survey monkey and your answers are held confidential. The results will be available at one of the Student Loan Debt groups on Facebook. If you are older, like me, there is Aging with Student Loan debt on Facebook. Just look up student loan debt and you will find the groups.

    Let your voice be heard!

  • ThereAreNoUselessMajors says:

    A couple of comments: I completely disagree about the majors. I worked in corporate forensics; classic degrees were valuable and considered relevant. Classics majors learn how to piece together understanding of events in a “society” based upon the study of its artifacts. I’ve worked with many designers who majored in art and six-figure business and tech writers who majored in English.

    If “business” degrees are so useful, why do elite universities not have them? Business degrees are for people who want just any B.A. for nondescript (and often uninteresting) clerical, office management, and low-level supervision jobs.

  • RoadOutOfDebt says:

    With these record figures we see nowadays, it’s difficult to continue saying student loan is a good debt. For sure for business and engineering degrees the return of investment is better, but considering the lower employment opportunities it became difficult for everyone to get a well payed job.

  • Emily says:

    I went to dental school. The students who’s parents didn’t help are looking at 200-250k in loans. DH is in med school. 100k is low for a professional degree. You can get through undergrad without loans. Med/dental/law/pharmacy without loans? Nearly impossible, unless you do the military. Which makes relationships practically impossible. The only kids who did it are single, or they had spouses that could follow them anywhere.

  • Kathy says:

    “Working for 1-2 years and gaining real-world experience and perspective before going to college is not such a bad idea.”

    I agree. And if you’re lucky enough to work for an employer who pays for your tuition or part of it, all the better. Go to school on someone else’s dime if you can. It may take you longer, but so what? I let my employer pay for about 80% of my tuition at both a community college and then the 4 yr. school I transferred into. I wish everyone well. What a nightmare.

  • KM says:

    I am in my last semester of college and I have no debt. It wasn’t even an option for me. Between going to a state college (which actually has one of the best aviation programs in the country and that’s why I went there), my parents helping me, and working part-time during semesters when I took classes and full-time during some semesters in order to save up for the next semester, I managed to have no student loans. I think the people going to law school and med school have to be damn sure that profession is what they want to do because it’s so expensive, in both time and money. And if a Bachelor’s degree is what employers want, what’s so wrong with a cheaper state college? The university might have prestige, but the education lies within the professors, not the institution. My physics and aerospace professors were among the most amazing educators I have ever known and I cannot imagine having studied elsewhere.

    • Greg says:

      You cannot imagine having studied elsewhere? You better not tell that HR people during interviews. It shows you are too fixated and possibly even trying to justify your choice. It does not matter so much you went to a cheap state college, what matters is your personality and how you apply your acquired skills.

  • marci says:

    The debt is not mandatory… With little savings, working, scholarships, grants, etc, my daughter has gone thru 4 years now with no student loans. It has taken 4 years to get thru 3 years due to some medical emergencies… appendix, etc… but so far NO debt. She got a double Asc. degree at the local community college first, and now is commuting once a week to a 4 yr college, working on weekends and being a single Mom of two. Of course, she has free babysitting (me) lol…. which helps out.

    It CAN be done tho. This 5th year, we may have to take out student loans – depending on how it goes.

    • marci says:

      PS – she maintains her home with the kids, PLUS an efficiency apartment at college.

      • vered says:

        Well, marci, I can’t say I’m surprised she’s so financially responsible – she had you as a role model.

    • MoneyNing says:

      Reading your stories always remind me that it’s not the cards we are dealt with but how we play our hand that makes all the difference.

      Thanks for telling us yet again that student loans is not a necessity to get through college even for people who don’t have a lump sum saved up.

      • marci says:

        Well, I do have one very determined young daughter who “hustles” for every scholarship application she can get her hands on…. as she says, it might be for “only” $300, but that will buy a textbook or two 🙂

        • KM says:

          I applied for a ton of scholarships, but even though I had good grades and wrote good essays, I didn’t get any 🙁 Most though were “need based,” and since they took parents’ income into account too, I didn’t qualify for them.

          • Ginger says:

            My situation was similar the KM’s, the scholarships took into consideration my mother’s income, even though I received no help from my mother. Even those scholarships that were not need based, if two candidates were equal often the scholarship committee took into account need to determine who got the scholarship.

          • marci says:

            Here’s where David’s suggestion of the year or two off comes in handy… by then, one is on one’s own, at least for the scholarship commities, and then parent’s income doesn’t factor in.

          • KM says:

            Marci, the only factors of when the parents’ income is not considered is when the student is over 24 (which accounts to more than a year or two off), has served in the military, or is married. I think those criteria are a little wrong…maybe if the student is working and living on their own and can prove it, then parents’ income shouldn’t be taken into account.

  • Cindy says:

    My husband and I just got married this past year. I’m so frustrated with people asking when we are going to buy a house or start a family. We can’t because our mortgage is his brain. He has amassed a quarter of a million in student debt and now makes $45,000. I often wonder what we could do with the extra $1,250 (minimum..) student loan payment we make each month.

    Obviously, these were our decisions to make, but if we could both go back, different decisions would have been made. I will definitely help my children perform a cost-benefit analysis when it comes time for them to make their college decisions, make sure that they know the time-value of student loans, and help them recognize that student loans are not like any other type of debt (they can’t be discharged and some can’t be refinanced).

    • Rent says:

      Get creative…many credit card cash advances…then default on credit cards and file bankruptcy.

    • Chris says:

      sorry to say, but he was already broke when you got married. however, there is hope: it may sound sarcastic, but with the current financial crisis and the monetary policies the federal reserve is implementing, your debt might just be inflated away over time. currency default has been set in motion already. alternatively, if you are daring (and you have nothing to lose) try to find an unusual solution to an unusual problem. think like an investment banker: applaud the gov’t for its excellent crisis management but personally take another 250k loan, buy gold and bet on default. when the crisis deepens and the flood of money doubles gold up to over $3000/oz. , then sell.

  • Ginger says:

    Unfortunately now a college degree is used the same way a high school degree was. When the requirements for a job are a BS/BA not an field there is a problem. We need to stop pushing all students to college, we need tradesmen, nurses, LVNs etc and not all people are meant to go to college. But, this means we need to fix the k-12 system. I tutored in college and the students who needed help and were in the class below English 1A did not know how to write a paragraph. English 1A itself was teaching how to write an essay, a subject that should be taught in high school (freshman year). A high school diploma once meant something, can we not bring that back?

    • College Degree says:

      I think the situation is even worse that College Degree vs. High School. Now we have all of these stupid micro degrees that HR types get lathered up about. It think it is a function of the marketing efforts of the for profit schools. My favorite is you no longer need a computer sciences degree you need a sub-degree on information assurance (only the government hires that crap).

      Many years ago the head of HR at CSC used to say that all a college degree told him was that someone was willing to put in the effort and was successfully able to retain 65%+ of what they were taught which was more than enought to demonstrate to him that they could learn the role.

      • Chris says:

        I like your comment: “micro degrees that HR types get lathered up about”
        That can only happen if you fall for all that hype that is generated in our everyday’s life, be it social media like facebook and twitter or smart phones and all the other crap everybody wants but nobody needs. consumerism is taking over personal responsibility: it makes people fall prey to marketing strategists. obese fall prey to the food processing industry. mortgage owners fall prey to bankers. high school students fall prey to fashion fads. and college students taking out 250k loans? I don’t get it, how in the world and why would you rack up 250k debt during college? where is the personal responsibility.

  • Jodi says:

    I feel you with the loan debt. and im still not sure college was even worth it for me

    but from a young age i was told, you are going to college and thats it

  • patty says:

    I wish you would have put a link so that I could read about the sentence.

    “My student loan debt is more than most folks’ mortgage.”

    Long ago, I lived on $80 a week. half was my board, then there was bus fare, and food. That was it. The president in the White House was Regan.

    • vered says:

      Hi Patty, just Google “hated being a lawyer” and you should find the thread as the first Google result 🙂 – The statement I quoted is in one of the comments.

      No doubt, America has seen better times financially. We are in a huge mess right now. I’m still optimistic. Hope I’m not wrong. 🙂

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