After reading an article by a guy named Samual Garner about his crushing student loan debt (which you can read here), I felt a little torn about the author’s woes. Garner laments that he ended up with $200,000 of student loan debt after completing his undergraduate and graduate degrees but didn’t realize the staggering amount of debt he’d racked up until after he’d graduated. He admits that year after year, he went to the office of student loans and signed the loan paperwork, but never really read it, and that this is the reason that he didn’t realize the overall amount.
Though I can somewhat relate to Garner, I can’t agree with the “woe is me,” tone of the article. Regardless of my backstory and my reasons for taking out student loans, I racked up over $47,000 in student loan debt and I know that it is my responsibility to pay it off.
Side Note: Had I attended a school that fudged its career placement numbers or charged me outrageous tuition with the promise that I’d make a huge salary upon graduation, I’d probably be a little more up in arms about my student loans—but this is not the case for myself or Garner.
Like Garner, I signed my student loans every year and ignored the fact that the overall amount of debt was increasing. But I can’t claim ignorance here—I can do math. The issue wasn’t that I didn’t realize I was accumulating debt, the issue is that it was seen as normal to accumulate student loan debt no matter how much it was. The systems currently in place tend to brush off student loan debt. There is this pervasive idea that going to school means that you must go into debt. I absolutely bought into that idea which is why I’m still paying off my student loans.
Another idea that I bought into was that I needed to graduate in four years (or less) with my bachelor’s degree. Most schools and universities are set up with a similar timeline for obtaining a bachelor’s degree—but why? Had I taken a little more time and paid for most of my tuition and classes upfront, I would have had a lot less debt. Though this would have meant more years of paying tuition, the cost is far less than taking out large student loans and paying on their interest year after year.
Better yet, why not educate more high school students to start with a cheaper community college, earn an associates for a much cheaper price tag, then pay only two years of the higher cost to complete a bachelors degree at a college or university? (Man, I really wish I’d gone this route!) Are the entry level, freshman classes from your more expensive school really worth more money than the same class from a community college? Unless you’re attending Harvard or some other Ivy League school, then the freshman classes are probably the same, so why pay so much more?
The problem with these two concepts is that most people never consider these alternatives when applying for or attending school. And I totally get it—neither option is very appealing. Who wants to go to school for six years instead of four just so you don’t have student loan debt?
However, regardless of how appealing (or unappealing) these options are, I think it’s important that students know that they are options. Students should learn about student loan debt and alternate options before they apply for school and, while I don’t think the responsibility should be completely on high schools, they would be a great place to start. It only takes an hour (maybe two) to teach students how much they’ll accumulate in student loan debt and compare that to the salary of their future career. Show students how long it will take for them to pay off their student loans, then talk about alternatives to student loans such as grants, scholarships, attending community college as opposed to a four year college, or possibly giving oneself more time to complete college while working and paying for school upfront.
I recognize that many parents and teachers might cringe at the idea of introducing high school students to the real cost of higher education. Perhaps there’s the fear that many students might not bother to attend college or might drop out should they be completely cognizant of just how much they will have to pay upon graduation. That might be a valid concern, but brushing the cost of college under the rug and saying that no cost is too high for a good education has left many graduates reeling with outrageous student loan debts.
* I realize I continually wrote, “student loan debt,” as opposed to “student loans.” I did this because the latter has a neutral connotation while the former reminds one that they owe someone money.