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Read this BEFORE you go to college

Before You Go to College

Read this BEFORE you go to college
Read this BEFORE you go to college

Last week I heard about a recent study conducted at the University of Minnesota showed that a full 20% of U of M students there had, at some point, worried that they wouldn’t have enough food to eat. Frankly, this statistic stunned me. Why on earth would a student choose college when they couldn’t even afford food to eat?

In the 1800’s only 4 percent of high school graduates attended college. In 2014, over 65 percent of high school graduates attended college. Some may see this as a good thing, and it may be. However, it’s important to look at the whole picture. Consider these facts:

  • College graduates in 2015 graduated with an average of over $35,000 in student loan debt.
  • The unemployment rate for all workers, according to this survey, is 5.5%
  • The unemployment rate for workers under age 25 is over double that of workers over 25, standing in 2014 at 12.3%
  • The unemployment rate for college grads under age 25 was 7.2%

Although the unemployment rate for college grads is lower than that of their age group as a whole, we must take into account that, on average, 71% of those degreed college graduates leave school with student loan debt, adding to their financial burden. Although there are deferment options for the unemployed in some cases, the burden of owing debt still looms over the college grad’s psyche.

Up until the 1950’s, when it came to a college degree, it was “pay cash or stay home”. And even then, student loans were only available for certain types of degrees such as engineering, science or education degrees. Just as with the rest of American credit, approval standards for student loans have now expanded on a ginormous level and pretty much anyone who wants to borrow money for college or anything else can do so. This expansion of credit, as you likely know, has created a tremendous debt burden on society as people borrow more and more and as wants become “needs”, which leaves them wondering how they’ll ever pay off their debt.

So, the question becomes: is college a good idea if you don’t have the money to pay for it? Or if you can pay for tuition but not afford to eat once you’re there? One can argue that this is why the government should step in and make college a part of the public education system like Norway and Sweden do, but seriously, folks, can a country with 19 trillion in national debt really afford to add the college tuition of 20 million college students to its debt load?

College: Determining if it’s Right for You or Your Child

The fact of the matter is that not every person can or should go to college. Some should skip it simply because they can’t afford it. The “I’ll worry about student loans later” mindset is ruining young lives. Check out posts on high economic and social costs of student loan debt for more info.

So the question must become: “Is college right for me (or for my child) at this time?” There are several factors to consider before giving yourself or your child the privilege (or the burden) of a college education.

  • What do I want to be when I grow up? Some high school graduates may prefer a job in an industry that requires tech school or on-the-job-training instead, and that’s okay.
  • What is the job market for my preferred profession? Just because you want a career as a paying musician or artist doesn’t mean you’re going to get one. The jobs that pay well in those markets are few and far in between, but the college degree costs associated with those types of degrees still run in the tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars
  • Is the career field I’ve chosen a profitable one? Social workers in the U.S. make an average of between $38,000 and $47,000 per year. Is that going to be enough of an income to pay off your average of $35k in student loans and support yourself?

College Debt Solutions

Before you sign on the dotted line to attend your college of choice, consider some solutions for avoiding heavy amounts of student loan debt and putting yourself in a situation where you’ll suffer financially and struggle to have food to eat.

Recommended Reading: Debt-Free U: How I Paid for an Outstanding College Education Without Loans, Scholarships, or Mooching off My Parents

Make your plan for paying for college long before you step foot on the college campus.

  • Will parents help? (ASK, don’t assume).
  • Can you delay college by three or four years and work to save up for school in the interim in order to avoid student loans?
  • Can you enter your field of choice without a degree and work your way up?
  • Can you gain employment with a company that will pay for all or part of your degree as you work?
  • Can you complete your first two years of school at a less expensive community college and transfer to a university in year three?
  • Is your heart’s desire a factor in your college or employment choice? While there is a balance to be had, it’s a waste of time and money to pursue a degree in engineering if you’d be much happier being a welder.

If you’re already in college and worried about accumulating student loan debt or about not having enough money for food, consider the following options:

  • Drop down to part-time status at school and get a part or full-time job that will allow you to eat and pay cash for most of your schooling
  • Buy used books as opposed to new books
  • Work to find cheaper off-campus housing or find a school where you can live with parents if that’s agreeable to everyone
  • Transfer to a less expensive school
  • Drop out altogether and go back once you have the cash in hand. If you currently have loads of student loans already, know that you’ll have to start paying them back if you choose this route
  • Work to cut expenses where you can. Stop going out on the weekends, or meet at someone’s home instead of clubbing it. Stop buying clothes and other items that aren’t necessities. Skip eating out and eat at home. Mark Cuban ate ketchup and mustard sandwiches so that he could save as much money as possible to grow his dream of being a biz owner. If Mark Cuban isn’t too good for crap food, neither are you. And since most college students survive on pizza and beer, you can’t use your health as an excuse to overspend on food.

Frankly, it just doesn’t seem reasonable to me to put yourself in college if you have no financial plan for paying for it, have no idea what it will cost or how to properly budget, and haven’t thought about the years after you’re done with school.  Too many kids these days go to school for reasons of status or in order to please over-bearing parents.

When it comes to college, the decision about whether to go or not should be made carefully. Having a college degree, a job you hate and tens of thousands in student loan debt is far removed from the original version of the American dream.



  1. “Having a college degree, a job you hate and tens of thousands in student loan debt is far removed from the original version of the American dream.” Powerful stuff there, Laurie! As I have considered the post-secondary education of my children (2 are post-secondary, one will be in a year and a half), I HAVE come up against the status appeal of university vs. community college in myself. But I haven’t given into it. I recognize it as wrong – though it is powerful and prevalent. I’m actually encouraging my youngest to go to a local community college – simply because it offers a program that line up with her interests – and there’s a very high employment rate for graduates. Anyway, you’ve hit on some tough-to-face issues here. Thanks!

    • Laurie says:

      Now, that’s the way to go to school! She’s picked a college that’s affordable and lines up with her dreams. And a very high employment rate to boot! It can be done!

  2. Kathy says:

    While additional education/training after high school is pretty essential today, not everyone is cut out for college. A technical or trade school is a great way to prepare for a career with smaller time and monetary expenditure. Society is always going to need heating/AC technicians, plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics etc. All of those careers have the income potential for someone to not only be self-supporting, but to thrive. And they are a great path to someone owning their own business. And not to degrade college but people need to put thought into their selections of school and major. Let’s face it, you don’t need to go to Harvard to be an elementary school teacher. But if you are going to be an engineer, it is wise to go to a university with good national standing in that field. I could keep going with advice, but you already nailed much of it in your article. Well done.

    • Laurie says:

      “You don’t need to go to Harvard to be an elementary school teacher”. Exactly, Kathy! That’s exactly what I’m talking about. There’s very little thought into the serious subject of logistics when it comes to post-secondary education. People look at the wrong factors: status, influence, etc. They forego any thought of affordability whatsoever often times. A college education can be a powerful thing – when entered into and completed correctly.

  3. You make a lot of great points, Laurie, and decisions about college should indeed be made carefully. The often-quoted stat that over a lifetime, college grads make about $1 million (I believe) more than high school grads, is also important to consider. But, yes, if you can’t eat, it’s probably time to hit pause on your education and earn some money!

    I may be in the minority here, but I also believe college can be a time of great personal and intellectual growth, and I think that is often overlooked in the discussion of the economics of college. If students take college seriously, they can learn a tremendous amount, develop skills critical for many careers, like analytical, interpersonal, and time management, and make connections who can be helpful in a variety of ways throughout their lives. (Can you tell I work in a college career center??)

  4. College has really become an expectation, which leads to many people not doing their homework first to make sure it’s the right and best choice for them. It can be a really good investment, as it was for me, but it’s definitely not for everyone and should be considered carefully. One thing that makes it so hard is that you’re essentially asking a child to take on debt that he/she doesn’t fully understand (as sadly many actual adults don’t either) when they also really aren’t 100% sure what they want to be when they grow up. My oldest nephew is headed to college next Fall. I’m really excited for him but also a bit nervous because I’m pretty sure he had to take student loans. I don’t think needing to take student debt is bad per se, but I do hope that he understands his responsibility towards it. The good thing is he has matured so much this year and is really proud of how well he is doing in school this year.

    • Laurie says:

      LOVE what you said about asking a child to take on debt when they don’t fully understand what that means nor know what they want to be when they grow up. This is a huge part of the problem. My nephew entered college this year too, and is doing great so far. He really seems to understand the magnitude of the money aspect and is working super hard at his studies. He also has a clear vision of what he wants to do, which is an added bonus. 🙂

  5. A great post. I’ve been working as a High School committee member for close to two years now and our High Schools are not doing a good job preparing our students for these facts. We need to be teaching students to research jobs, careers paths, incomes, etc not just which colleges have the pretties campuses or are located in cool place.

    • Laurie says:

      Exactly, Brian!! They’re working to implement a “one size fits all” system, and that’s simply not reality. So glad you are helping in your area. What a blessing to those students and parents!

  6. Hannah says:

    I see pressure at every level of education that says that primary and secondary education exists to prepare kids for college. It is rare to find parents or teachers who say things like, education exists to make adult life good.

    Unless you can convince yourself and your kids that their childhood and adolescent learning years aren’t a waste if they don’t go to college, it will be very tough for most of lower and middle America to avoid college debt.

    Even though I personally use my college degree (and encouraged my husband to get a PhD), I don’t value education for its own sake. I really hope that I can help my kids view education as tool and not something that is intrinsically valuable or particularly good at solving societies maladies.

  7. Great advice and very important for prospective college kids. I was just having a conversation about this recently as it comes up so often, reading about new grads with huge amounts of debt. Both my wife and I went to state universities and I’d encourage my child to do so too. Of course, I wouldn’t be opposed to a more expensive private school necessarily but it depends on the situation. I know someone who went to a very expensive private school to major in social work. Nothing wrong with majoring in social work but don’t get into 6 figure debt when your salary can’t sustain it.

    • Laurie says:

      This is what I’m talking about. We use the wrong measurements to decide whether to go to college, and we end up negating many of the benefits. Love the comment, Andrew!

  8. I think this is a good message, but honestly I don’t think high school students think about it in these terms. I hope some people read this and communicate it to their kids, but I think it’s an uphill battle. You are more so thinking about lifestyle and quality of life when choosing a college (at least it seems like that is what’s on high school student’s minds). But yes if you can help others avoid student loan debt that’s a great thing.

    • Laurie says:

      Yes, there definitely needs to be much more communication with students. We need to educate them on the realities of college and its costs so that we can work together with our kids to make the wisest choices in post-secondary education.

  9. Miranda says:

    I love this Laurie! I’ve had so many thoughts on this subject and watched so many people around me go into massive amounts of debt that they didn’t even realize they were accumulating until after the fact. Student loan debt is a very serious epidemic in this country, and the only way to stop it is to quit feeding people this idea that student debt is okay, and just part of the way things are.

    My son is 10 and yes it’s kind of early but he already has been talking about college. We happen to live right outside one of the best colleges in Ohio, and I’m hoping he will have enough sense to go there that way he can live at home and save $14k in dorm living fees. Awesome topic, and awesome post!

    • Laurie says:

      Student loan debt is indeed an epidemic!!! Another problem is that they just lump in many costs into the “yearly tuition and fees” that don’t need to be there – like the dorm costs!!! It’s pure deception, IMHO. We’re trying to talk those of our kids who are considering college to think carefully before making their decisions too.

  10. Yes! I wish I’d read posts like this before I went to university. Although I got a few grants and bursaries which helped out, I’ve still ended up in a lot of difficult financial situations because I was convinced that my loans would be enough for me to live on.

    I understand it’s a lot more difficult for students to get financial help to study in the US?

    • Laurie says:

      I think it’s more difficult than it is in Canada and other places, but mainly because they’re not sure where to look. There are many scholarship dollars that go unused every year, and many other ways to cut college costs that people simply don’t consider.

  11. I think one thing that I should have done in college is that I should have taken a part time job to lessen the amount of my student loan. Probably, I should have considered courses related to information technology or engineering.

    • Laurie says:

      Hindsight is always 20/20, isn’t it! Oh well: at least we can better prepare our children and teach them to learn from our mistakes. 🙂

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