Saturday, March 13, 2010

Student Loan Debt

Take a minute and check this site out.

I have a 50-50 type of story. I first went to college right after high school. I was accepted into a very strong engineering school; it was very expensive, but I had a great plan. I won a fabulous Navy ROTC scholarship, but it had conditions. If I met those conditions after my freshman year, the Navy would pay for the next three years. I would earn an officer's commission and spend some time in the Navy making decent officer's pay. My parents agreed to pay for my freshman year, as long as I met the conditions of the scholarship. If I didn't, I'd be required to pay them back.

Well, I ended up getting a D in my freshman calculus class. I needed a C for the scholarship. I'd like to say I tried as hard as I could, but I think it was more a situation that I never had to try to earn good grades in high school and didn't really know how. In any case, calculus at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute kicked my behind, and I lost a $60,000-plus scholarship.

I convinced my parents that I needed to do another year at RPI. They said they'd front the money, but that now I owed them for two years tuition. Ridiculously, I agreed. I had fabulous friends there and was having the time of my life. Stupidly, I spent more time having fun than going to class. My RPI friends probably don't know this, but I was academically dismissed after my sophomore year. Not showing up to finals certainly didn't help...

I stuck around for a third year, having all the fun of a college student (and conducting the pep band - the most fun year of my life, pre-marriage) but not going to class. My parents had already paid off the loans by refinancing their home, so I didn't have student loan payments hanging over my head. Thank goodness, because while it was an awesome year, it was also the poorest I've ever been. All in all, I now owed my parents almost $50,000 for less than 40 transferable credits.

Fast forward a few years. I'm married and newly out of the Army (and qualified for the GI Bill). My husband is stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, and I decide to go back to school. Kansas State University is a reasonably cheap opportunity that I can't pass up. Because my husband is active duty, I'm allowed to register as a Kansas resident. I also spend a lot of time applying for scholarships. Between the two, the GI Bill, and a teaching assistant gig the geology department offers, I finish my bachelors degree with less than $10,000 in student loans. I paid the interest fees for the unsubsidized loans as I went, but happily allowed the government to pay the interest for the subsidized loans.

Fast forward a few more years. After two years at Fort Jackson, we find ourselves back at Fort Riley. K-State's geology program welcomed me back with open arms, a GTA position, and more scholarships. I actually made money earning my masters degree.

So, let's compare:

A) Two years of an essentially worthless private school education (although the chemistry credits allowed me to not have to take chem I and II for my geology bachelors) = $50,000

B) Six years of public school education = <$10,000 (although if you factor in the paycheck I earned as a TA/GTA, it's probably closer to zero)

It's with this experience/history that I read the above posted article. I commiserated with the students that chose a prestigious private school that specializes in their major. I mentally high-fived the students that smartly chose to ignore the hype and earned degrees at public universities. But I mostly strongly nodded my head at the man who has zero student loans, instead spending some time in the military. Yes, he did two deployments to Iraq, but he earned his GI Bill benefits and learned more about life around the world than any degree program could possibly teach.

I was young, dumb, and stupid in every way when I first graduated from high school. I chose a major because of a suggestion from my high school guidance counselor - I didn't know enough about myself to really have any idea what I wanted to be 'when I grew up' and thought that the more prestigious and glamorous university had to be a better choice. Now that my step-kids are making the same decisions, my husband and I are using our own experiences to help the kids make smarter choices than we did. My step-daughter has chosen to start at a community college; she also took so many AP classes in high school that she began as a sophomore. My step-son will be graduating from high school a semester early and has decided to work through the spring and summer to earn more money before starting college 'on time' in the fall. He hasn't yet decided where he'll apply and what he'll major in, but he's leaning in the right directions - away from uber-expensive private schools.

I still owe my mom for my two years at RPI. While I'm now halfway kicking myself for that situation, I don't regret the three years I spent there. I made some wonderful friends at RPI and had the time of my life. However, the realist in me recognizes that I would also have made fabulous friends during those same three years if I'd been living at home and working at McDonalds. Still, it is what it is. I've chosen to learn from the experience instead of beating myself up over it, and I hope my kids will be able to use those experiences to make better decisions for their futures.

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