It’s quite the conundrum. We are told that a college education is the key to achieving our full potential and the American dream. The story tells us it is the way out of poverty. Access to higher education was a major priority for the last White House administration and affordability was central to that message. President Obama even introduced the America’s College Promise Act 2015 to make the two years of community college free.
Over the past decade or so the number of Americans earning college degrees has skyrocketed. And so has the tuition, and the debt that follows. For many, what was supposed to be a roadmap to the American Dream turned out to be a money pit into a uniquely American nightmare. Graduates now face enormously burdensome debt that many will never be able to pay off in their lifetime. We’ve all heard reports about the student loan default crisis, where the struggle to keep up with unaffordable loan payments becomes so discouraging that people stop paying altogether.
Women are particularly vulnerable. I recently read that women own two-thirds of student loan debt. Yet a female graduate will earn only 79 cents for every dollar that a male graduate will, on average, in a similar position. Hmm…wouldn’t it be nice if that was reflected in the tuition we pay?! Blacks and Latinas tend to take on more debt, and the fact that they tend to make even less than their White counterparts makes it especially harder for them to repay.
But alas, there’s hope! There are several ways to graduate with less or no debt. At the root of decreasing the need to take on debt to advance one’s education are planning, time and diligence. Here are some things to consider:
- Take your required courses at a community college. It is not necessary to spend tens of thousands of dollars on coursework that isn’t directly relevant to your major; better yet, if you don’t even know what you want to study or career path you want to take right now, community college is a great place to sort that out. Aside from the money, it can help you to grow in maturity and be more focused at a four-year college. Advantages:
- Potentially pay tuition as you go
- The 4-year college transcript is what will be seen on your resume and what you will talk about at parties! If you started at Community but ended up at Harvard no one really has to know.
- Prepare! There are literally thousands of grants and scholarships. Take the time to do the research necessary to meet all of the deadlines and gather all of the information required to complete each application.
- Attend events at schools and community organizations of all sorts; read books and articles on free money for college. Get to know people who do this every day and keep in touch.
- It would be wise to start researching 18 months out from when you will begin school. This way you can target your time and energy towards the most lucrative scholarships and grants that you qualify for and are interested in.
- Give yourself and your recommenders enough time to craft thoughtful, well-written essays and recommendations.
- Consider the potential salary expectations for your desired career. Will your potential future income allow you to afford your student loan debt along with your realistic cost of living? Your grades, location, network and caliber of your school are all factors in the salary level that may be available to you.
- This is the business of your life. Do a cost/benefit analysis on your educational goals. Does the pay scale for the career you intend to go into justify the cost of the degree required for the field? For example, if you want to be a social worker, would it be worth it to go $60,000 into debt, considering what your salary is likely to be over the long run?
- Following the example in number 1, there are student loan forgiveness programs for certain careers.
- Usually when you go into one of these careers and apply for loan forgiveness there are requirements such as length of time to work in the field.
- Careers in public service (ex., The Peace Corps), medicine, the law and military service are all examples.
- For more information go here, here, here and here.
- An often overlooked yet critical advantage of going to college is the alumni network.
- I wrote in a previous blog, No Man Is An Island. No one gets to where they want to be in life solely on their own effort. Everyone needs a team to achieve their goals and dreams.
- As I asserted in my post about opportunity, connections are key. That is the value of going to a top-tier school. College isn’t just about academics; it’s the people with whom you will build lifetime personal relationships and professional connections. Further, the higher up on that U.S. News & World Report list, the higher your earning potential will be as soon as your graduate.
- Going to a top school matters most in the beginning of your career. Afterward your professional record is what will really matter. Of course top school alums will always have bragging rights, whatever it’s worth. 🙂
- Get a job at a company that offers tuition reimbursement. Consider that there is more than one way to obtain an “education.” Working in your field of interest while saving and investing as much as you can, kills two birds with one stone. Being reimbursed for the tuition you pay is icing on the cake!
- I benefited enormously by this incentive when I worked at Ernst & Young. I was able to grow my professional competence through continuing education classes. But they would also have paid for graduate school.
- Usually companies will require that you study courses either related to your specific position or the company’s industry. Length of time employed is another typical requirement. Either way if it’s your field of choice, it’s a win.
- The bigger the company the more likely that this opportunity will be available and the more generous.
These are just a few suggestions to get you started. There are other personal finance possibilities that I will cover in another blog. Have you been working on getting the money together to pay for college? What has or has not worked for you so far? Do you have any ideas you could add to this list? Comment below!
Read more on the advantages of community college here.