If I could do it again, I’d like to think I’d do it all differently… but I’d probably be lying. What am I talking about? College.
See, I went to college (the first time) from 1999 to 2002, studying graphic design at a community college in my city. I didn’t have any real savings—though I took two years off between high school and college, all I had to show for it in the end was the beginnings of a debt problem!—and no significant experience managing my personal finances.
My parents did what they could to help, but in the end, my education was paid for almost entirely with student loans. So, when I graduated, I had a diploma, no job and about $15,000 in student debt demanding to be paid.
Now, I get it: for many people, this isn’t a large debt load. In fact, it could have been a great deal more. I was initially accepted into a private art school in the United States, when I had aspirations of being a comic book artist. Had I gone down that road, I would have had at least $60,000 to contend with (and likely much more). And today, as a seminary student, I’m reminded of this once more. When I paid my tuition for one course at the end of January, it was roughly two thirds of the tuition for my entire first year of community college.
But at the time, this was a terrifying amount of money—especially since my first professional jobs only paid $10 or $12 an hour. I was making the minimum payments every month (and then only barely), with a plan to have it all paid off within 10 years (because that was the way the bank structured it).
I don’t currently have any student debt. Lord willing, I won’t accumulate any as I complete my seminary degree (and if you’d like to be a part of making that a reality, I’d surely appreciate it). And if the Lord allows, our children will not have to worry about student debt (though they may need to make some concessions to make that a reality).
But I am concerned for many out there who are going to college and university. And I am greatly concerned about many young people who are going to seminary. What I’m concerned about is that too many of us are failing to consider the cost of our decisions. We are becoming slaves of the lenders (Proverbs 22:7) for degrees that may not actually help us move forward in our future goals and ministry—or worse, in some cases may actually hinder us!
So what are we to do here? Here are five recommendations:
First, examine ourselves. What are we really passionate about? What do we want to do with our lives? Will it allow me to better serve the Lord? These are questions that I wish I’d asked myself more carefully during my first go-around in post-secondary education, and I think I asked fairly well prior to applying for seminary. I want my education to have a purpose, to allow me to move forward in my ministry and career (even as I gain some level of personal satisfaction just from having done it).
Second, plan your education route. These considerations should leads us to ask about the route we’re going to take: do we need a Bachelor’s or a Master’s degree? Are we more suited to a technical skill and thus would be better served by going to a trade school or apprenticing? Are we risking making ourselves overqualified and therefore unemployable by pursuing too much education? (And this is all I’m going to say right now about Christians and PhDs…)
Third, save and find creative ways to pay. A desire we have for our children is that they complete their post-secondary education as close to debt free as possible. One of the ways we’re helping with that is by starting their savings plans now. While we’re not talking huge dollars at the moment, they’re already off to a good start. This should be our approach, regardless of our age and stage in life. Investigate scholarships, grants and bursaries. Save for as long as you can. If we’re serious about doing something, it’s better to wait and do it right without creating new stresses for our families.
And this is where I have grave concerns for many going to seminary. Let’s be honest: seminary is crazy expensive, and ministry jobs tend to not pay all that well (I’m already in a ministry job, so I’m not concerned about that part). While making money isn’t the primary motivation for people getting a degree, and certainly shouldn’t be a factor regarding ministry, it’s a reality we need to be mindful of. For a number of us, seminary is a must. For many more, we’d be better served by just listening to RTS lectures on iTunes U.
Which leads me to my next point…
Fourth, if we take on debt, commit to repaying as quickly as possible. Although the Bible doesn’t explicitly call debt wrong (though it comes awful close and never puts it in a positive category), we cannot forget that it is a type of slavery. If you borrow money, it must be paid back in a timely fashion (whether that’s the timeline agreed upon between the borrower and the lender or sooner). Do not approach this lightly. Do not be careless. And certainly do not choose to not pay it at all or declare bankruptcy in an attempt to get the debt wiped out. If you do this, as many people in my home province have done for decades (to the point now that your student loans stick with you even in bankruptcy), you are stealing from the lender. So if we’re going to take on debt, we need to take the responsibility to pay it back seriously.
Finally, pray and seek counsel. If you’re not praying throughout your education planning, you’re almost certain to make the wrong decision. If you’re not seeking wise counsel from others, you’re probably going to blow it. We all have blinders, and we all need God’s wisdom—and the insights of others—to help us see what we would otherwise miss (both positively and negatively).
Education is a wonderful thing. But be wise as you pursue it. Be sure to carefully consider the cost.