This applies to everyone; you’re not the only one who is thinking of going to college. Every year there’s a group of high school students, or people looking to start over, asking, “What do I do now?” You’ve been bagging groceries, working in amusement parks, parking cars, selling hot dogs, mowing lawns, answering phones… Just trying to make a buck and have a little fun. You go to a guidance councilor take a bunch of tests to try and figure out what you’re good at, depending on your grades the counselor says go to college. If it’s my guidance counselor he says “go to college no matter what, grades be damned, take out student loans, you’ll be able to pay them back when you graduate.”
Ahhhh, the future takes hold in the present, you decide you’ll go to college, take out student loans and if you’re a diligent student graduate in four years. But what if you’re not a great student, let’s say you change majors a few times until you figure out what you enjoy doing. You can tack on another year or even two, or if you’re into law, medicine, or teaching and public service, add on even more. Now you had some money, your folks helped you out some, and you only have $40,000 in student loans (secured debt), not a lot by most standards but there no way out you have to pay it off. You head off into the world to find a job, good thing you find a place with your friends, you’re splitting an apartment in the city and only paying $800 a month (if lucky). The economy is bad, there are ten people looking for the same job you’re applying for and many of them have experience. You have a six month grace period before you have to start paying off your loan; well you take a job as a temp making $10 an hour. Not bad, but your only bringing home $300 a week or $1200 an month, the remaining $400 goes for transportation, clothes and peanut butter and jelly, a few drinks here and there. Now you get a deferment on that student loan that may or may not be collecting interest. Finally you land a full time job and you can make the $450 student loan payment, you’re still eating PB&J, getting out a little more, but still living with your friends. This may last a couple of years you make a little more $, and can afford to eat turkey and go out a couple times a week maybe even move out? Then you lose your job during a merger, and you start over.
Ten years down the road, you’re in the same boat, you still owe $40k in student loans you had it down to $35k at one point but had to take a few computer classes. Now you want to get married, you do, and you’re super happy, you have a couple of kids and want a house in the burbs. But the $40k is still there, you’re actually lucky and still can work a little, but the $300 interest only payment is being picked up by your spouse. Before long it starts to become an albatross, you have credit card debt too, the kids are expensive and that $40k is looming large but not worse because you stayed in contact with the bank, and they haven’t hit you with any penalties; forget about the house, you’re stuck in a quagmire of debt. But this can be avoided.
This is the typical American college graduate of the 1990’s that didn’t attend an Ivy League School. Some land high paying jobs and pay off that debt, but many don’t, or have to work fifteen or twenty years to get to a zero balance, most went to college even though they couldn’t afford it. It’s the truth, now comes my advice, the 5 most important questions you need to understand and ask.
Should I take out a student loan?
Answer: No, absolutely not, unless you’re 100% sure it will be repaid in three to five years at the most. You’d be better off putting it on an unsecured credit card, collecting the special bonuses and if you can’t pay later, file for bankruptcy and defaulting on the debt. Scary thought, but you need to get out of debt to build savings; being stuck with an unpayable student loan that will follow you forever collecting interest and penalties will destroy you. This is the great American way, getting you to become a slave to your debt. Life moves very fast after college, and debt can be a terrible anchor. It won’t ruin your life, but it can seriously hold you back and limit your future.
Do I need to go to college?
Answer: Unfortunately you do, especially women, men can get into construction, landscaping, other high paying blue collar work if they’re lucky or have an in; but even these times union construction workers are hurting. College is truly your best bet. However, you can’t afford it? Well, Junior College is the ticket, get as many general education classes under your belt as you can, or find specialized fields, like nursing, solar power, culinary, website development, computer programming… The key is to do something you enjoy, don’t enroll in a program because you think it will get you a job. Take fine arts, Spanish, English, or theater, if you like it there is a career in it! By doing something you enjoy you’ll be more likely to excel, more likely to finish, and more likely to not change professions later on in life, and of course, get better grades.
Hint: you can never have too many vocabulary classes. Make a list with things you like to do on the right and things you don’t like on the left. Let that be a guide, work towards the things you enjoy, and try and avoid what you don’t.
Can I afford to go to college?
Answer: You can afford college; anyone can by having realistic goals. If Princeton won’t give you a scholarship, and you live in a single working class house, chances are you won’t have the funds to attend an Ivy League school, and if you’ve been working and going to high school chances are you won’t have all A’s or the required after-school activities. So what do you do? You be realistic, and make as many smart choices as possible. Take a major you like, say music, get a job on campus, work study is great, you just need to get through all of Financial Aid’s red tape, get grants, set up a repayment plan with the school, scholarships are the best, but they require incredible commitment, talent, and desire. Let’s be honest, not everyone wants to be 100% devoted to a cause, especially at 18 or 19. Life is a variety show. But you’re still devoted to Princeton! What you do is study your tail off, join organizations in areas you like, as many you can, they’ll be your social outlet; make sure you’re involved in the student activities like trips, events, student government… maybe they have some cool clubs? You may need to live small, no expensive nights out for a while, but you’ll find you’re having fun anyway.
Go to your dream university; go right to the department where you want to major. Meet the people; look for work at the university; stop by often, just say, “hi,” be nice. Check out all the courses in your major, visit the bookstore. What if your dream University is in California, and you’re in NJ? Then what? Pinch pennies and get a bus, train, or plane ticket; between semesters or on break, pack up your bare necessities, and just hit the road. What about needing a place to stay, or having a job first? Stay with friends, family, rent a cheap place…You have to give yourself at least three weeks, of pounding the pavement looking for work, going to the university’s department Chair or Dean, getting seen at the college, checking out the career center. I know a guy, fed up with NY’s winters, packs up his bicycle and pedaled to Los Angeles. If you find a job stay If you don’t find anything in the three weeks; you couldn’t find a job, got a cold and every employer in or around campus couldn’t stand looking at your runny nose. Go home, finish up at the two year school, but make as many trips as you can to the University you really want seeing the financial aid office, looking around town for jobs, checking out the local papers. Chances are you will find something, when the two years are up, you’ll have an associate’s degree. If you did well you’ll get into your dream school; did outstanding? You’ll get your grants, scholarship whatever.
How much will it cost and how do I pay for it?
Answer: Let’s say you did good enough to get accepted, but not good enough to get a scholarship, grant, or free money to cover the entire bill then what? Now, you really need to realize the financial implications. Most high end universities, are going to cost you about $30 grand a year or more (State schools are less and should not be overlooked, follow the same strategy I stated and you could leave college with money in your pocket). Student aid gets you $15k, and recommends you take out a loan for the other $15k. Ah, there’s the trap, just say, “no.” Set up a payment plan, 4 months that’s $3700 per month…a lot for a college student. You work at work study and they pay $1500 a month. So now that leaves $2200 a month left for you to cover or about $8800 a semester. You’ll need 4-6 semesters depending on the degree. If you take out loans now that still ads up to $35-52k to get your degree; to pay off the interest alone for a $35k loan, depending on the rate, will be between $175 – $205 or more a month and that won’t even touch the principal. Well I hope you see where I’m going with this, avoid the loan, and fight your way to a loan no greater than a $1000 a semester. How can you make that extra money? Well work of course, and be smart, get a summer job. Stash the money away, you need to be disciplined, summer is a time for fun, but it’s also three months of work, you can make $3000 in three months if you work at McDonald’s full-time, easy, maybe more. You can’t be above working and being humble. Find a source of income, carpentry, lifeguard, bartender, beer delivery, bagging groceries, selling hot dogs, deliver pizza, Blog, sell t-shirts, customer service, call center… So now you return from summer, put the three thousand to tuition. When the holidays roll around make sure everyone knows that you want cash for books, or let them know what books you’ll need. So now you’re looking at $1600 a semester. While on campus your goal should be to find a job there. If you land one, almost all universities offer full tuition remission for full-time employees, and you will be saved, but will be forced to attend part time. If you don’t land the job, just keep paying the university, the $1400 or so you’re short, can be found, you can do the research on line, but now you’re in affordable loan territory. Some of the greatest schools in this country understand that not everyone is made of cash; they may have additional financial assistance, or housing depending on your situation. Please understand that they want you to succeed. Many universities and colleges, especially specialized schools, have coop programs with corporations in NYC, LA, Houston, Boston, Chicago, Miami, DC, you just need to ask and be aggressive. Your goal should be to get out of college with less than $10k in debt, if you can’t I recommend finding a school where you will.
Is it worth it?
Answer: So you’ve read this far, you’re saying it sounds like so much work, and such a struggle, I’m in college when will I have fun? My answer is: in college fun finds you, too much in many cases. There will be plenty of an opportunity to party, hang out with friends; the discipline that will be needed may be the hardest part of my ideas. You need to show up to work, you need to be upfront with your advisors, employers and friends. Tell them you’ll go shopping at the mall, hang out and stuff, but you’ll skip the movie, and don’t buy those $35 shoes, or that $50 dinner and drinks. Keep your spending in check.
If you’ve followed my suggestions, in the end you’ll have a bachelor’s degree in a field you enjoy, you’ll have $10k in debt or less, you’ll have references from the employers you worked for and their respect. You’ll have friends from college, plus you’ll have the knowledge of studying and networking in the university and junior college. Within a year you’ll find a job, it may start you with a low salary so you can only afford $250 a month for your loan. No problem, in 45 months, less than four years, you’ll be paid off and saving for the future you always wanted.