The Dwindling Power of the College Diploma

The student loan crisis. We hear about it almost every day in some way, shape or form. As each month passes, the problem looms larger. There are about $1.5 trillion loaned to around 44 million people in the U.S. right now. Of that, $166 billion of that is delinquent. This is obviously a huge issue with no easy solution, but I did want to weigh in on one trend that helped us get to this terrible financial state we collectively find ourselves in.

When I got ready to go to college, I looked at five or six schools,  half of which were in-state, the rest out of state. What I did not comprehend at the time was the financial burden that moving out of state would lay on my parents in both the short and long term, as well as what it would mean for me long term. I definitely was not considering any consequences in the short term while I was in school.

I chose to go to school in southern California at Azusa Pacific University. I had an incredible time, got a great degree, had the chance to study abroad twice on two different continents, and got the opportunity to make life long friends and connect with professors who truly cared about their students. I have nothing bad to say about APU, I am very proud to be an alumnus of that school. But there have been costs tied to that decision.

For my parents, I’m not even sure of the full impact for them yet. I know it was expensive, the portion they covered was whatever I didn’t take out in loans or received in scholarships. For me, I am still paying off my loans to this day. I graduated in early May of 2014. Fast forward and I am a couple months from the five-year mark of receiving my diploma. By the grace of God, I’ve almost got it all paid now. When I walked off the stage that day, I was ecstatic to have achieved my goal of completing a bachelors degree. But I did not realize at that moment that there were an invisible ball and chain of almost $30,000 (after interest was paid) strapped to my leg that I would take half a decade to free myself from.

So, looking back, here are a few things to consider if you are planning on getting a degree, be it an associate’s, bachelor’s, or master’s (doctorate if you are one of those nerds. Just kidding I’m just jealous of smart people).

Do you REALLY need to study out of state? I thought as an 18-year-old that I needed to “get out” and explore another place, another state, another part of the country. That was probably true. But looking back, the reality is that I probably didn’t need to live in California for four years to experience it. I could have had a great in-state school experience and would have saved a bundle of money, some of which I could have used to do a month long trip to see all of California had I wanted to and had plenty left over.

Do I REALLY need this expensive a$$ degree? This is one to consider that some do not. What is the income potential of whatever field you are planning to study in? If you are wanting to go to some school and dig yourself a $100,000 hole of student loans then you sure as heck better get a degree that is going to get you a job that pays you more than poverty level wages. I don’t want to pick on any field of work. I’m sure you love whatever you do or whatever you plan to do. But going into debt requires that you dig yourself back out. And if you don’t have a very big shovel (your salary), that dig is going to be painful and will take a long time. Consider the ratio of the amount of debt you are taking on and what you will really be able to make to pay it off afterward. Can you pursue what you love without a degree? Could you knock out prerequisites at a community college first before moving to classes at a university? Things to consider.

My parents and grandparents always told me to get a college degree no matter what. It seems that this past wisdom no longer holds as true as it once did. When my parents went to college, the costs were reasonable. Many were able to go to school while working and could pay their way as they attended a university. I’m not saying that isn’t possible now, but the times they are a-changin’. Getting a college degree no longer guarantees anything. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are more hireable than someone else, doesn’t guarantee a certain level of pay, and is not the key that unlocks all professional doors as some from past generations may imply. There are many industries now that look more at experience, skill sets, soft skills, certifications, and whether or not you are good at doing a certain set of tasks. Information Technology is a good example of this. You don’t need more than a high school diploma to get a good job in IT. If you know your way around computer, server, and network hardware and software, and have experience setting up or managing technology, a potential employer will likely not bat an eye if they don’t see a “strong college degree” on your resume. When I interviewed for my current job as an IT Help Desk Engineer, my college degree didn’t come up as far as I remember.

Anymore, having the right skills means more than a degree in many cases. Don’t get hung up on getting a degree. If you can do what you want to do with some less intensive training, or a technical program, or something like that, and get to work sooner, do it!

This is not meant to be a jab at colleges or universities. Rather, a call to use wisdom and discernment in deciding when and where higher education is relevant, useful and economical. Take it from someone that is still digging out right now: student loans are no fun. Getting out from under them is a great goal. But if you could avoid them in the first place or at a discount, explore all of your available options.

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