less than we bargained for {part 1}

Get up and go; don’t wait for the world to change!” I said. Does that sound like ignorance to you? It does to those of my peers who are making our generation famous for things like technology obsession and living at Mom and Dad’s. These “under-employed” college grads complain a lot about money. They can’t afford gas, can’t pay their student loans, can’t believe the cost of rent. Because of this, I wish personal finance (without a debt mentality) were a required course in all high schools. I pity everyone who left home and school without receiving a warning about the perils of living beyond one’s means and using credit to pick up the slack.

students at commencement ceremony

image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

Our attitude that we will always be in debt, as a country and as individuals, is a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that to embrace the attitude is to reject escape. Many have truly fallen prey to unscrupulous lenders. Read Matt Taibbi’s article “The College Loan Scandal…” on Rolling Stone if you’d like to raise your blood pressure. Then for balance (or to make you angrier) go to National Review Online’s “The Corner” and read Jason Richwine’s “What ‘Profits?’“, a denunciation of Taibbi’s article.

The point is that people are signing papers without understanding the fine print. There is a reason the ancient proverb warns, “The rich rule over the poor and the borrower is slave to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). As high school grads prepare to become college students this month, I hope they’re thinking long-term. It’s a high hope, I know.

Here are my thoughts on college and what it sets a person up for:

Go to college, yes! But not by all means. Guidance counselors, teachers, admissions reps, and parents have bees in their bonnets. Those bees buzz madly in your elders’ ears: “Only failures skip college.” But, um, college itself is not the maker/breaker. Don’t tell them I told you.

-College is not your birthright but it is a wonderful opportunity. It’s a semi-controlled environment where you can practice being an adult (or not). You can meet great people, have well-organized opportunities, and learn things that are harder to learn independently. I don’t know many people disciplined enough to sit down and analyze literature or practice algebra on their own.

-College can pave the way for you to get hired, but there are also “unmarked” entrances to the job market. I probably would not have landed my post-college job in a public library except by working for free for a summer. The library directors preferred to hire people with Master’s degrees, but my volunteering gave them a chance to “test drive” me as an employee, and they decided I was alright. My point is twofold: some employers will completely ignore you if your education ended after high school. Sometimes you’ll get dismissed even with your Bachelor’s degree. But there are ways around this.

You can go to college without debt. Really. I didn’t say this year. But you can. You can put off going to school until you’ve saved some money and secured some scholarships. You can complete basic courses at your community college—just make sure they’ll transfer. In hindsight I wish I had done this because the rates per credit hour were much cheaper at CC than at the private school I chose instead! Another option is to head straight for the four-year campus and work your way through. Sometimes that may hamper your social life, but…pay now or pay later, I say. After college it will be the borrowers who have to work all the time. You may even find campus activities—things you’d do for fun—that pay. I paid part of my way by editing the campus yearbook.

Only go to college if you can articulate your reasons for going. If it’s just because “all my friends are” or “my parents want me to,” see if  you can wait a while. Getting a degree simply for the sake of getting a degree could be a huge waste of money. It all depends on what you want to do. Find out if people who hire entry-level positions for your dream job value education or experience more. If everyone with whom you share your plans retorts, “What are you going to do with that?” by all means give them a sassy answer but then think about it. Do they have a point?

-That said, when you know what you want and have the financial wherewithal to accomplish it without signing your life on a dotted line, go!

Okay, anyone who’s been there, done that—or bucked expectations and not gone there, done that—what advice would you offer to high school grads with college in their sights?

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