In my home province of Ontario, everyone’s all abuzz over the announcement of “free” tuition for college and university for lower-income families. The only problem, of course, is it’s not free. Not at all. All that’s happened is the provincial government has increased the grant amount for these families. They still have to contribute $3,000, though, if they want to get that $6,000 grant.
Which means “free” isn’t free. They still have to save up some money. They still need to contribute—and they’ll still accumulate a ton of debt along the way because too few lower income families have college savings here in Canada, and even fewer younger people in general have any clue how to manage their money.
How do I know? I was one of them.
I went to college entirely on student loans because that was the only way for me to go to college. I wasn’t good with money. I had no savings. So loans seemed to be the way to go. Three years later, I graduated with around $15,000 in debt. It took me almost 10 years to pay it off (and even then, I did not because I actually paid it off, but because we rolled it into our mortgage).
There’s so much I wish I could tell my 20-year-old self. Heck, there’s so much I wish I could have told my 19-year-old niece before she went off to college a couple of years ago, too.1 Now, I have three kids, the oldest of which will be ready to start thinking about college in just a few short years.
So what do I tell her? How do I help her avoid the mistakes I—and so many in the last 25 years—have made? Among the first things I’ll do is ask her to read Beating the College Debt Trap: Getting a Degree Without Going Broke by Alex Chediak.
Nine traps that shackle us with debt
In this book, Chediak unpacks nine traps that lead us into college debt, and reminds his readers that it really is possible to get a degree without selling out your future. The traps he explores, in brief, are:
- Everyone must go to a four-year college
- It’s all just going to work out (and other lies you’ve heard about how money works)
- The money you spend on a prestigious college is worth it
- Choosing a major on a whim
- Student loans are always worth it (the “good debt” myth)
- I can’t get meaningful work as a student (therefore I won’t work)
- I can’t control my expenses
- Finding a high-paying job will be a breeze
- I’ve got a paycheck and can finally live it up!
These nine traps speak to the experiences and thinking of so many of us. We treat debt as if it were a good thing, instead of a snare. We act as though budgeting isn’t our responsibility. We go to school with no clue what we actually want to do, but we’re pretty sure it’ll work out in the end. We look at the name and reputation of the school, but we fail to consider whether all we’re buying is the name.
But the problem all starts with the first—that everyone must go to a four-year college—or to college at all.
From option to expectation
It starts early, around the 10th or 11th grade. At that point, many kids are expected to start thinking about college: where will I go? What will I take? But no one seems to ask should I go at all? The expectation today seems to be, “Of course you’re going to college or university!” It’s a given.
Except it’s not.
This is why there are so many teens and 20-somethings wandering college campuses, looking for a good time, but not having a clue about what they’re going to do for their careers. They’re going because they’re told they should. But no one ever seems to say, you know what? “No matter what you may have heard, four-year colleges are not for everyone. They’re especially not for everyone who’s barely eighteen and has just finished high school” (31).
Rarely does anyone encourage reflection, or time off. Instead, we move to the next thing and we fall prey to the first trap Chediak describes—the notion that everyone must go to a four-year college. But as he writes, “A four-year college is too expensive to wander into just because it’s somehow expected of you or because you have nothing better to do. Only go to a four-year college if it makes sense!” (32)
As I read, I found myself considering how we got into this mess. The thing that’s shocking is that the change from college being an option to an expectation happened within my own lifetime. I’m 36, which means I’m part of the second generation (if not the first) for whom going to college was seen as a given. And even my taking time off between high school and college seemed shocking to many of my peers and teachers!
But I needed that time, even if I didn’t use it as well as I should have. I wasn’t ready to go to college. I was actually pretty burnt out on school altogether. I needed the break to figure out what I wanted to do and get excited about learning again. I can’t imagine the financial trouble I’d have gotten myself into if I’d gone to college right after high school.
We’re all diploma mills now
This change from option to expectation has also lead to so many of the problems we see in the post-secondary system today. The college I went to, for example, has long had a reputation for being a party school. Academics weren’t terribly rigorous. The programs—with one or two exceptions—were not considered first class. But when I began attending, the program I was in was rehabilitating. It was trying to show itself as being elite and producing high-quality graduates.
By the time I graduated, the college was little more than a diploma mill. Why? Because the ever-expanding bureaucracy enjoyed the tuition money. Never mind that they were flooding the market with more graduates than jobs. Never mind that many of those graduates should have failed.
A high graduation rate means more money. Let future us (or better yet, not us) worry about the consequences.
American context, but universal principles
That probably sounds a bit jaded, I realize. And I don’t mean to be. A college education is extremely valuable—if you know why you’re going to pursue it, and you carefully count the cost. And this is probably the strongest aspect of Beating the College Debt Trap. Although this book is written from an understanding of the American system, and readers from outside the United States may be baffled by the technical details, the universal principles are entirely applicable.
It doesn’t matter if you live in America, Australia, Germany, or Canada, you should only pursue a degree where and when it makes sense. If your passion is welding, for example, go to a trade school! Regardless of where you live, you should learn how to budget early and develop a strong work ethic before you go off to school. Wherever you are, you can—and should—develop networking skills as early as you can so you can eventually get a job that pays reasonably well. And no matter what, you need to count the cost—you need to understand the rules around student debt in your context, and be savvy about saving up to do without and paying down what you do need to take on as quickly as possible. And all of these things work together to free you to honor God with our finances.
That’s what any reader can take away from this book. More importantly, it’s what I hope every reader takes away from it.
Title: Beating the College Debt Trap: Getting a Degree Without Going Broke
Author: Alex Chediak
Publisher: Zondervan (2016)
This week, Zondervan has kindly provided me with three copies of Beating the College Debt Trap to give away! To enter, follow the instructions in the Rafflecopter widget below: