Grownups bear a lot of the burden of responsibility for the college loan debt crisis.
It was, after all, adult politicians, adult bankers, and even adult parents, who decided it was a great idea for kids to take on serious debt to go to the college of their dreams.
Helen Raleigh writes in The Federalist about how she steered a niece towards a different course, and of the joy of recently seeing that niece graduate from college debt-free.
Raleigh’s niece must have been a good student because she received several of those fat envelopes—meaning it’s an acceptance—from colleges at the end of high school:
Like many high school seniors, she received several college admission letters in the spring and eventually narrowed them to two choices. One was from her dream school—an elite private college that costs about $70,000 a year, including room, board, and tuition. The school offered her a $20,000 merit-based scholarship per year, but she still needed to come up with $50,000 every year for the next four years to attend.
Another acceptance was from a good, but not excellent, state college. It offered her a full-ride scholarship that would cover room, board, and tuition, meaning she wouldn’t need to come up with any extra money. In addition, the college would allow her to participate in a work-study program. She would be able to earn her spending money and gain work experience at the same time.
However, this college wasn’t her dream school. It wasn’t even one of her top choices. She only applied for it as a fallback “safety” option and as a last resort.
Raleigh knew that her niece wanted to attend the elite college. But when she asked for a better scholarship package the answer was no.
The niece approached Raleigh and asked if she should go into debt to the tune of $50,000 a year to go to her dream college? The aunt did the math:
I ran some numbers for her. If she borrowed $50,000 a year for the next four years, she would graduate with $200,000 in debt at the young age of 21. Assuming the average federal student loan interest rate of 4.8 percent and a monthly payment of $938.05, it would take her 40 years to pay off the $200,000 loan plus $250,265.33 interest.
I explained to her that even this gloomy scenario is based on some very rosy assumptions. Given the average starting salary for a college graduate is at $50,000, a monthly payment of $938.05 will represent more than 22 percent of her pre-tax annual income.
She wouldn’t have much left to cover her basic living expenses, and she certainly wouldn’t be able to pursue other interests in life, let alone saving for a down payment for a house or retirement.
Additionally, any attempt to reduce the monthly payment only means it would take even longer than 40 years to pay off her loan. So, I pointedly asked my niece, “Do you really want to start life as a 20-something with this huge financial mountain on your back and spend the rest of your life paying it off? All for a college degree from an elite school?”
Not every college student has somebody to run the numbers for her, apparently—or maybe the allure of a prestige college simply blinds people to financial realities.
Raleigh could also offer her own perspective: When Raleigh came to the U.S. to pursue a master’s degree, she had bypassed an elite college for a small public one that gave her a good scholarship. It was still hard, requiring three jobs and a lot of scrimping:
To save money, I ate leftovers at the Chinese restaurant whenever I could. Other times, I bought the cheapest food in the grocery store—usually carrots and chicken gizzards. Whenever I cooked chicken gizzards, our neighbor’s cat impatiently waited outside the kitchen window for his share, while my American roommates ran upstairs to hide from the smell they called “disgusting.”
Yes, I had to sacrifice to earn my college education, but I was able to graduate debt free. Lacking a degree from an elite college didn’t prevent me from finding a good-paying starting job. Without a financial burden, I was able to buy my first house within a few years, while similarly aged colleagues were still paying off their student loans.
What is so amazing about the college loan crisis is that nobody—no adults—appears to have anticipated the perfectly predictable perils ahead for young people.
Here's a thought experiment: What advice would you have given to Raleigh's niece?
I especially urge those who have offspring headed towards college to read Raleigh’s excellent piece.