Getting a College Education – The Real Costs

university life

My father used to say: “Get a good education. They can’t take that away from you.” And he had a point. A good education is priceless. But, at that time, you didn’t have to carry a debt load for most of your life, to get a college degree.

That’s why you need to get clear on some specific questions. And to consider if the kind of education you really need or want, is one that comes from the ‘hallowed halls of higher learning’, or the school of experience

Questions to Consider

  1. What do I want to get in return for my investment of time and money in a college education?
  2. What is it that I am really getting when I invest in a college degree?
  3. How valuable is it going to be to me in terms of finding work?
  4. Will it give me an edge over the competition in finding a good job?

The fact is, there are so many graduates walking around with degrees, that degrees don’t necessarily open the doors to jobs anymore.

However, if you have your heart set on getting a higher education, there is a better way to get a degree, than embedding yourself on a campus for 4 years, racking up huge debt, and enslaving yourself or your family to paying off that debt for a good part of your lives. For more on the facts of getting an education today read on.

First, let’s have a look at the stats on Student Loans

At the end of 2012, total student debt outstanding – that refers to loans that hadn’t been paid off – stood at $950 billion, that’s almost triple what it was eight years before, in 2004.

But the question we need to ask is how were they doing at paying back those loans. According to the graph below, here is what we find.

  • 33% of that debt is owed by people in their 30’s.
  • 17% is owed by people in their 40’s.
  • 12% is owed by people in their 50’s
  • And 5% is still owed by people over the age of 60!

A substantial number of those who took out student loans, during their college days, spent the best years of their lives trying to pay them off.

graph of statistics on loans

That’s crazy. Who wants to have loans hanging over them most of their lives? If people can’t pay off their student loans, it’s time to see the writing on the wall, and to find a better option.

So What are the Real Facts You Need to Know?

Nowadays, a degree, especially in something, that changes quickly, like Computer Science is dated the day you graduate. If you don’t get a job in your field within a year, you are competing with newer grads, and you are now a year older with no experience to show.

It is a well-known fact that many textbooks are outdated the day they are published. The only way to keep current is to be working in your field. But constantly changing knowledge, and keeping current aren’t the only problems in this Information Age.

What Happens if You Can’t Pay Off Your Student Loans?

If you aren’t one of the lucky ones, who go through college and graduate school on scholarships, then it’s not unusual to graduate with a debt of over $100,000.

A few years ago, if students weren’t able to pay, their student loans were forgiven, so they could start again with a clean slate. Not so now. Student Loans are in a special category. You can’t even declare bankruptcy and get rid of your student loans anymore.

Economist Max Fraad Wolff says: “Your housing debt, your car debt, your credit card debt, if you go bankrupt, it gets wiped away. [But] you literally cannot get out of your student debt. If you decide you can’t pay it too bad. Student loan debt is special and it is especially sticky and hard to get rid of.”

Students are being harassed by Debt Collection Agencies, even if they are one month late with a loan payment.

A bad credit rating can affect your chances of getting a job, since many employers check credit scores before hiring staff, as an indicator of how responsible potential applicants are.

Right now, graduates are facing the worst job market ever. They are finding themselves in competition with people who have years of experience under their belts, who’ve been laid off and can’t find work in their field. So they can end up taking whatever they can get in the service sector, just to pay the rent and keep up with those loan payments. That cuts into the time and energy they have to search for work in their field. The pressures are enormous.

College is Expensive

The US Dept. of Education National Center for Education Statistics states that in 2014-15, the annual undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board were estimated to be $16,188 at public institutions, $37,424 at private not-for-profit institutions, and $23,372 at private for-profit institutions.

Even a two-year public college will cost you over $18,632 a year in room, board, tuition. And books and computer supplies can average $1,000 plus a year. Don’t forget personal expenses, even if you are very careful, can add up to over $2,000 for take-out food, cell phone costs, laundry. Transportation is a minimum of $1,000. What does that add up to – $22,000 plus per year minimum. (Stats from

Over 80% of students now have credit cards, which they rely on, to take care of added expenses. Racking up credit card debt only adds to your financial load.

Meanwhile, How Are Your High School Friends Faring
– the ones who went to work right after graduation?

While you are going through college, and accumulating debt big time, your high school friends, who decided to get into low end jobs just to get started, are moving ahead, making money instead of going into debt. They are getting experience on the job, being trained on the job, and getting in line for promotions. They are learning how the workforce operates, while they are still young and free, without a family to support.

They are also making connections, networking, and meeting people who can help them move into better jobs. They are establishing themselves, getting apartments, setting themselves up, and paying their way. Four years later they may have earned $100,000 and pretty much have mapped out the terrain with regard to where they are going.

Four years on, when you are graduating with your degree, and a mountain of debt, you may find yourself starting where they started 4 years ago. Who’s better off now?

What is it that really opens the doors to jobs?

Keep in mind these points:

  • Being able to tell an employer what you can do for him/her, what you have been doing, your record of work experience.
  • And your connections – who you’ve met along the way, who knows how you work, and likes you and your attitude enough to tell others that you’re worth taking a chance on. — This is key.
The Smart Way to Get a College Education?

Here are some alternatives to going directly to college right out of High School:

  • You can wait for a few years and ease into it, while you are working, by taking evening and weekend courses to explore areas of interest. Schools are now becoming more flexible in reaching out to attract students from the workforce, by making it easier to study towards degrees on weekends.
  • You can also do online programs while you are working. More universities and colleges, in an effort to recruit students, are offering academic programs online.
  • At many colleges and universities, if you can get a full-time job on staff, they will pay for the courses you take towards a degree. But make sure the places you apply to work actually have this kind of policy in place. It’s not universally true. And this doesn’t mean that if you are already a student, you can get a job on campus and have your tuition paid for.
  • You can enter a Trades College Program which has a lot more chance of getting you into the workplace, because you actually have a technical or mechanical skill to offer an employer in a very short time. Make sure your program incorporates a work experience component, thus getting you experience and references if you show promise.
  • Working Overseas is an option which many are taking more seriously, as a way to make a contribution and also see the world. For more information on the benefits of working overseas see:
  • Teaching English has opened the gateway to a whole new experience for many. A stint working overseas can give you a whole new perspective on things. For more information on this see:

You may be better off taking a few years to mature, scout out the lay of the land in the field of your dreams, and see what’s actually going on. One thing is sure, after a few years in the workforce, you will have a totally different perspective on which direction is right for you. It’s worth considering your alternatives.

A Word About Apprenticeships

An apprenticeship is a formal, on-the-job training program through which a novice learns a trade, or vocation under the guidance of a master practitioner. Most include some degree of theoretical classroom instruction in addition to hands-on practical experience through a practicum. Students visit work sites, take classroom training, and may also take online instruction with public- or private-sector colleges.

Sometimes all you ned is a technical certification, which you can get through a private one or two year program that specializes only in a small aspect of that field. For example, many computer related programs are available in systems, programming, computer support. So you don’t need a Computer Science degree to work in the field. There are also programs in automotive, plumbing, electronics, graphic arts, hairstyling, cooking or baking, and filmmaking, to mention a few.

This aspect of preparing for the workforce is increasingly supported and recognized by business and industry, who engage in partnering with community colleges, to produce the kind of graduates who are confident and equipped to perform the job upon graduation. You will need to do your research in whatever area of the country you live, to find out what is available. This route is the way to immediate employment, because the program is geared to produce workers who are job-ready when they go out the door.

Just for information purposes, as an example of one of these sites, you can check out Industry Training Apprenticeship Programs. This site will give you an idea of the kinds of programs offered in these types of schools. Of course, you will need to do your own research to see what’s available in your own area.

Now for the Other Side

All that being said about the practical aspects of the costs of getting an education, here are some other thoughts about the value of a college education.

  • Spending time in college allows you to develop your ability to think clearly, logically, and to express yourself articulately and confidently.
  • A Liberal Arts education is a preparation for life, rather than merely for employment.
  • It depends on what you want to go into as a career. If you want to become a doctor, lawyer or engineer, you will need college.
  • You can always work your way through college, especially if you can live at home and attend college in your home town.
  • College is a great way to meet people, to make friends, to find your partner in life.
  • Going away to college can be a milestone in life, when you finally step out on your own, and move away from your family.
  • College offers a buffer before getting into the workforce, when you can take a breather, look around at the world, and think about what you want to do with your life.

Remember: Whatever route you take to prepare for your future career, you will only get out of it, what you put into it. School is your opportunity to learn. You don’t have to limit yourself to the curriculum. You can read other books, ask questions of your instructors, do your own research. What you do with your time is completely in your hands.

And of course, if money is not the bottom line in your world view, and you are not forced to get into the workplace asap, it’s good to keep in mind that society will always need historians, philosophers, anthropologists, artists and musicians. The world would be a much poorer place without them.

That being said, there is now a new kid on the block which may take higher education in a whole new direction. It’s called the “UnCollege Movement”.

UnCollege – A New Social Movement

UnCollege is a social movement that aims to change the assumption that going to college is the only path to success, that you need a degree before any employer will look at you. This movement is the brainchild of educational futurist, Dale J. Stephens, a homeschooler, who in March 2013 published a book called Hacking Your Education: Ditch the Lectures, Save Tens of Thousands, and Learn More Than Your Peers Ever Will.

He attended college for 8 months and realized that it was, for him, a waste of time and money that rewards conformity, rather than independence, competition rather than collaboration, regurgitation rather than real learning, and theory rather than application. (Wikipedia) He dropped out to accept a Thiel Fellowship – a $100,000 grant to spend two years developing his ideas into a workable format. He became one of the first group of “20 under 20” who were paid to develop their innovative ideas and show the world what they could do without a college education.

Recently, for the first time in history, student loan debt surpassed overall credit card debt for the general population, and now tops one trillion. This has become a wake-up call motivating high school grads to look for alternative ways to find their way in the world. A new culture of “hackademics” who see college diplomas as antiquated, and are not afraid to step out of the outmoded academic path, is now taking hold. They call it “hacking your education”.

In Hacking Your Education Stephens tells you how to create your own opportunities, plan your own course of studies, choosing what you really want to learn, picking from what’s out there online and nearby, using mentors and work experiences, traveling the world, making your own way towards your dream.

The UnCollege movement is founded on the following principles:

  • Many people pay too much for university and learn too little.
  • You can get an amazing education anywhere—but you’ll have to stop writing papers and start doing things.
  • You need an excellent education to survive in a world where 50% of the population is under 30.
  • Subjects taught in traditional universities are often contrived, theoretical, and irrelevant, promoting conformity and regurgitation rather than innovation and learning.
  • You don’t have to decide what to do with your life at age 18.
  • You can contribute to society without necessarily having a university degree.
  • You cannot rely on university to give you a complete and relevant education when professors are often more interested in researching than teaching.
  • If you want to gain the skills requisite for success, you must hack your education.

The UnCollege movement believes that college, while not in itself adverse, needs significant changes because:

  • Tuition is rising at twice the rate of inflation.
  • Students are not learning.
  • Students are incurring high levels of debt to finance their educations.

Source: Wikipedia: UnCollege

Tedx Talk – Dale J. Stephens

Two months after leaving college, Dale presented his case [to students on a college campus], for taking their education beyond the classroom to learn the skills, abilities and aptitudes which aren’t being taught in college.

His premise: Young people need to learn how to take initiative, to innovate, to network, and be self-directive, in order to succeed in today’s global working environment. Only then will they have the power and vision to realize their dreams – to go out and create their own causes, projects, and companies, and change the world.

For more information see and Dale J. Stephens

In Conclusion

All this is a lot to think about. But understanding the “Real Costs” of a college education is important. You can’t go into it with your eyes closed. You need to know the facts. And the facts can be different for each individual, depending on your particular situation. Therefore, take your time and consider all your options. You want to feel in your heart, that you’ve made the best decision, about the kind of education that is right for you.

The point is, that if you have the motivation and drive, you can be successful whether or not you go to university and graduate with a $200,000 student loan to pay back. You do have a choice.

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