Go to college, but don’t go broke doing it

I saw in this morning’s Post-Dispatch that 25% of student borrowers can’t repay their debts.

I understand why, but it’s preventable. Jim Gallagher’s column has some good advice. I’ll add some more, having recently spent a little time on my old stomping grounds at Mizzou.

Some of these high-rise apartments students are living in are more posh than the Hilton Garden Inn, and they rent for nearly the rate I charge for a two-bedroom house. One of my tenants is a doctor. Something’s wrong when students–regardless of what they’re majoring in–are spending more on housing than a married doctor, however young and however many years of residency he may have left. A doctor in residency gets a paycheck, after all. He’s paying his rent from his current income; students are betting against a future income that’s still uncertain.

I paid about $400 a month for housing, which included 15 meals per week. I hope they charge more than that now, but given the backlash I faced when I tried to raise rent as treasurer by $20 a month, I doubt they charge much more than that. I lived in a drafty barn–actually a converted Knights of Columbus hall–with century-old insulation, century-old windows, century-old heating, and no air conditioning. While I don’t recommend living like that if you don’t have to, there are housing options that cost considerably less than those posh high rises.

I had a job. I did desktop support for the school of journalism for two years, eventually getting promoted to network administrator. Doing desktop support, I made double what I made selling computers my first two years of college, and as a network administrator, I made even more than that. It helped.

I also had a scholarship. I don’t think the state of Missouri has its Bright Flight program anymore, but scholarships are still available, and it’s easier to find out about them now than it was 20 years ago when I was in school.

Last but not least, I did what I had to do to graduate in four years. I took summer classes both my junior and senior years, and carried an 18-hour load one semester, and that let me get it done in four.

If I were doing it again, I would have enrolled in the local community college the summer after high school to get my weed-out classes general requirements out of the way cheap, which would have saved me money and probably added about .25 to my GPA. I’ve seen a few wise students do that, and I don’t think any of them have regretted it. Taking classes and working would have meant fewer games of Civilization in between high school and college, but would have been worth it.

The end result of all of this, even without taking the community college route, was that I graduated with zero debt. My sister did the same.

And that was good. As Gallagher states, having a degree is no guarantee of getting a good job, and that good job can be a few years off. I had some lean years in my 20s. I wasn’t in serious danger of financial ruin, but I had some months where there wasn’t much money left after paying the bills. A hefty student loan payment on top of that would have limited my options.

But you know what? Those lean years were still better than living in that drafty barn. Had I lived on easy credit for years in one of those luxury apartments, my expectations probably would have been different, and those lean years would have been a lot harder to endure.

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