I survived student loans … barely

I survived student loans … barely
April 27, 2018 Bob Allen

I am unlikely to be a protagonist on A&E’s “Hoarders” anytime soon. I am not as anal retentive as a former colleague who used to plan his wardrobe on paper a week at a time and place his pens and pencils so that the points were in the same direction. I’m more genetically predisposed, thanks to my librarian mother, to cleaning out file folders. In general, my filing cabinet is the place where nostalgia goes to die.

One noteworthy exception: Student loan documents.

Specifically, the documents stamped “paid in full.”

At the risk of dating myself, I entered college in 1977 and emerged in 1983 having accumulated $17,600 in student loan debt to earn a bachelor’s degree from Michigan State University (Earvin Johnson and I were in the same freshman class.) and a master’s from Northwestern University. (The football team was bad, but I was part of the mob that celebrated the end of a still-record 34-game losing streak.) Both degrees, I should add, were in the highly compensated field of journalism.

I will spare you the particulars of how I paid it all off—ahead of time. The details don’t really matter. In general, for a few years, I had an apartment furnished with hand-me-downs and a black-and-white TV that I later upgraded to a 13-inch color set. I paid off my credit card on time and saved a few thousand. And worked my share of overtime.

So nothing others haven’t done.

In the beginning, $1 of every $5 I brought home went to student loans. When I place an actual, quantifiable value on the sacrifice, I have no idea how I did it. But I did. The proof is in that letter you see at the top of this blog.

Today, nearly three decades after sending the lender my final loan check, I think about the experience still. And I admit, yes, I am proud of that. It certainly helped develop the fortitude to withstand other personal finance challenges, such as my first mortgage. And now, college educations for my sons, 11 and 10.

Yeah, about them. Retirement, I hardly knew ye.

In my day, student loan debt was a line item in the economy. Today, it’s a crisis, maybe on its way to ticking-time-bomb status: More than $1.48 billion in debt — $600 billion more than credit card debt — held by about 44 million borrowers. An average debt topping $37,000 for every student.

To be honest, I didn’t give the cost of college much thought, didn’t place a ceiling on the amount of debt I would take on. Nor did my parents, whose parsimony in so many areas was forged during the Great Depression. I still have the letter my parents wrote after a particularly agonizing conversation about how I was going to afford a graduate degree from a place like Northwestern. I mean, barely a handful of years before, they were wondering whether I’d survive a community college. This was, well, a good problem for them.

Leave it to my father: “We will find a way. Hey, no one says it will be easy.”

Today, unfortunately, parents, including my wife and I, cannot afford to be so casual any more than we can afford college, if we’re honest about it.

Given my own experience of student loan survival, I’d like to urge parents, if they haven’t already, to sit with their kids and figure out just how much they can afford to spend on college. More important, how much debt your kid can absorb. Be honest. I dodged the debt bullet and didn’t have to give up the career I wanted. But how many children will base their field of specialty on its potential to repay loans?

So do your homework. Read stories such as “College’s first task: How to pay for it” from The New York Times. And especially this one, “How much is too much college debt?” You are not a bad parent for doing this. And let’s face it, most of our kids think this already.

I got lucky. For your children, our children, that luck has run out.

Take a look at these numbers. My degree from Northwestern, even then a pricey private school, totaled $19,900 in total in 1982-83. According to the website, it’s now past $95,000 for a degree in a field where the employment prospects are, shall we say, challenging? So, yes, nearly $100,000 for, essentially, an advanced degree in blacksmithing.

And a $515 “activity fee.” At $95,000 a year, who the hell has time to be active?

Don’t get me wrong. My Northwestern education was the defining year of my career. I’ve never survived anything more rigorous or rewarding. For me at $19,000, the return on investment was high.

But with all due respect to my alma mater, the higher education system and American society in general, $95,000 for a year of college is insane.

That paying for college is spoken around the dinner tables of this country in the same ominous octaves as planning for retirement is shameful. I didn’t need a master’s degree to conclude that. And I don’t think you can obtain a degree advanced enough to articulate a plausible explanation, one that will hold up when confronted by the dreams of a child.

— Bob Allen


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