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Control your debt, stay in school, stay employed and out of prison

Some people are worried that student loans are the next debt time bomb that can potentially wreck the economy, and that fear of student-loan debt will make people less inclined to seek the education they need.

Two statistics should discourage that.

The unemployment rate for college graduates in 2011 was 4-5%, depending on whose figures you believe. Either is less than half the unemployment rate for people who don’t have a degree.

And roughly half of prisoners are high school dropouts, while less than two percent of prisoners have college degrees.

So going to college makes it easier to get a job, and easier to stay out of trouble.

That said, you want to be smart about it. Don’t go to an expensive, ivy-league school and major in something that pays $20,000 a year. Get a degree in a field that’s growing or at least holding steady, and go to a state school in your own state unless you have a really good reason not to.

You can also consider taking your first two years at a junior college. In doing so, you stand to save a lot of money. You also stand a better chance of finishing.

I went to Mizzou all four years, and most of the classes I took my first two years were designed to weed people out, rather than teach. I remember two things from College Algebra: When you plot odd functions, one leg sticks up and the other sticks down, and when you plot even functions, both legs stand in the same direction. And the square root of -1 is a constant named i. I didn’t even learn the former thing in class; I learned it from a tutor who used to hold study sessions in an abandoned auditorium on campus around test time.

And for the record, I haven’t needed to know how to recognize an even or odd function or use i elsewhere in life, ever. For the times I need algebra, my high school algebra has had to suffice. College Algebra at Mizzou wasn’t useful; it was institutionalized hazing.

One of my friends at church–we’ll call him BK–is a successful mechanical engineer. He went to a junior college for two years, then went to Rolla, and recommends that others do the same. In his words, a junior college is interested in teaching you for those first two years, so he transferred in as a junior and felt like he knew something, whereas his counterparts who did the same thing I did spent two years getting their confidence forcibly beaten out of them.

A former colleague of mine–we’ll call him RH–argues that it’s best to go away all four years so that you don’t spend two years hanging out with former high school buddies who didn’t go to college, but I’ve only ever heard that argument once.

Except that another friend of mine from church–we’ll call him JS–went away to college and still got in quite a bit of trouble his first two years. And BK’s career trajectory is just as good as RH’s. Not to mention BK is a much more pleasant person to be around–I’ll point at BK and tell my boys he’s a good guy to be like. I’d really rather neither of them end up like RH.

So go to school, and be smart about it. The rich people with Ivy League educations make headlines, but there are successful people with state school educations too. Changing the world is a noble goal, but getting a good job and not carrying student-loan debt for half your career is noble too.

Don’t get me wrong–getting the degree doesn’t guarantee anything. But it certainly stacks the odds in your favor.

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