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Politics / Education

Beyond the Student Loan Bubble and the True Cost of Tuition

by Jeanne Roberts | November 7 2014

The Student Loan Bubble is real. According to an article that appeared recently in, the cost of college tuition ranges widely, from a two-year degree at a community college for about $3,000 a year, to a four-year degree at a private college, which can run as much as $29,056 per year. Factor in living expenses, for those who live too far away from college to domicile with parental groups, and you begin to see the true scope of the education-finance burden.

Room and board are two of the largest expenses. The first is a fixed monthly expense, ranging from $0 if you’re willing to manage an apartment complex while going to school, to $4,000 for a trendy condo in Manhattan on the 20th floor. The second expense can be pared down somewhat by canny students who learned from parents how to make tomato soup out of ketchup packets and a pocketful of restaurant crackers.

Other expenses, which cumulatively make the room and board burden look small by comparison, include books (used at $100, if you can find one, otherwise well north of $200 in most cases); transportation (with gas costing from $3.51 to $3.66, except in California, where it is more than $4.20 per gallon); and various college fees (GED testing, application fees, the equipment for a degree in a medical field like dentistry). If you are an adult child of the “near-poor”—a group expanded exponentially by the recent recession (which also inflated college  costs by 20 percent over the last five years) and also the one most anxious to see their sons and daughters move up the social ladder—you may experience enough financial trauma in college to make you a dyed-in-the-wool, old-style Republican for the rest of your life.

In addition, though half of all full-time students reportedly pay only slightly more than $10,000 at both public and private colleges, the trauma of entering the adult world $40,000 dollars in debt for what is only a moderately useful degree (a business major, for example, or social service work) can be stressful for both students and their parents, particularly as these parents often paid only $40,000 for their homes!

At the very bottom of this cost issue is how much you, the student, are willing to spend to get a degree. If you are going for a veterinary assistant’s certificate, you will likely spend slightly more than half as much as it would cost you to become a nurse, but your future salary is one-third to one-fourth as much. Or perhaps you went for a two-year auto mechanic degree, in which case you can eventually make as much as the above-mentioned dentist—for the curious reason that most Americans take better care of their vehicles than their teeth!

These future wage scales also depend on your skill, your geographic location, and the density of workers of your type in your specific area. As a result, even if you evaluate your future profession based on statistics available today, you may end up paying a lot of money for a skill that doesn’t pay very well in the future. This is why it is best to make your career choice based on your hopes and ideals. As any thinking adult realizes, doing what you love makes up for a lot of financial drawbacks.

To make my point, instead of presenting you endless bullet-pointed or numbered lists of facts and figures, I interviewed three college graduates at the midpoint of their lives and careers. I have changed their names, but their experiences shed a great deal of light on some of the mistakes college-bound seniors make in choosing a profession.

Damien: When an Avocation is worth More Than Money

The first is Damien, who took a four year degree in philosophy at a state-run college. His future ambition—a postdoctorate and tenure at the same college—fell through in the final year of his education, when he failed to complete the foreign language requirement (yes, due to scheduling conflicts), bought a foreclosed home, and became seriously ill.

Originally, Damien was a musician who also handcrafted beautiful guitars. He learned everything he needed to know from books and trial and error. Unfortunately, as the son of blue-collar parents, he felt being a professor would offer some sort of social elevation that being an artist/craftsman would not. A year in and out of hospitals changed his mind. For the better, I like to think.

Today, with a serious girlfriend and a new lease on life, Damien often admits he should have checked out the possibilities more carefully. The student loans will be paid off about seven years after his mortgage, and he would much rather be building custom guitars for money and singing in a band just for the love of it. In Damien’s case, an apprenticeship with a local guitar maker would have been more useful.

Jeremy: When Life is What Happens While We Are Making Other Plans

The second case is Jeremy, an admitted nerd who went for a two-year graphic arts degree at a local college. Two years stretched to three. One day, the school’s business office told Jeremy he had used all his federal aid (Pell Grant) in the previous 12 semesters. So Jeremy toughed out one more year and then went shopping for a job.

It should have been a slam dunk. Instead, the school and its counterparts in that state had advertised hugely for, and graduated, a glut of graphic artists, IT professionals and web developers—careers which, pre-recession, had been the “sexiest” (and best paid) choices around. The trick was completing the course in two years, because some schools had (in a few cases, admittedly) “overbooked” students and “underbooked” experienced teachers.

Five years later, his degree languishing in the file cabinet, his finances in chaos, and his taste for graphic arts burnt out by ridiculously fussy clients, Jeremy discovered an unsuspected talent and started writing “profiles” on blue-chip stock companies, at their request. Unlike most freelance journalism, profiling pays remarkably well and Jeremy doesn’t have to put on a suit and tie, punch a clock, or even leave his room/office if he doesn’t want to. The world is literally at his fingers, thanks to an internet connection, a PC, a laptop, a half-circle of slimline monitors, an iPhone, and a half-dozen connectivity applications.

Leah the Caregiver (But People-Care Pays Better)

Leah, who spent most of her life being a compassionate caregiver as a friend, a wife and a daughter, finally got a chance to go to college in her late 30’s. Another child of the near-poor, she chose animal care over human care. Animals were easier to handle, showed more gratitude, and didn’t gripe all the time—traits absent in her former husband. On the flip side, however, caring for animals as a veterinary assistant was another career that barely skirted poverty. For $23,130 (in May of 2012), her vet assistant’s degree cost 60 percent of the tuition (and time) she would have to pay to become a Licensed Practical Nurse, or LPN. She might still have opted for the fuzzy patients if she hadn’t met her second husband, whose job as a medical courier would allow them to someday afford a house and a child or two to grow up in it.

When It Comes to College, Cost Is Only One Factor

As you can see from the above examples, a dollar amount is only one element in the college-education cost equation. Equally as important are your dreams and goals and future plans. We can’t all become doctors and lawyers—and if we did the jobs wouldn’t pay much more than food service. But we can all decide on a career that aligns with some of our talents, if not precisely our heart’s desire. And in any case, as the LA Times notes, college loans (i.e., student debt) are not a magic bullet for the growing economic class of the near poor: the average net worth of post-college individuals under 40 carrying student debt is a mere $8,700.

Bottom line? The “what do I want to be when I grow up?” factor is very likely the first or second consideration you should have in mind before you sign up for classes. You don’t have to be an idealist, but you also don’t have to sacrifice your dreams in their entirety. Damien’s future wife is on course to be a professor, and he lives through her vicariously while building magnificent guitars. Jeremy’s clients sometimes ask him for help with a website. And when Leah is done with her shifts for the week, she works a few hours at an animal shelter.

“It’s all good,” she says—a sentiment echoed by Jeremy, Damien and hundreds of other former college students. Thus, even though the recent recession destroyed a lot of dreams, and a lot of families, it also took us Americans back to a forgotten place; a place where money was only a single factor in life and not the be-all, end-all of existence.

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