A Degree In Debt

By Kristen Castillo

July 17, 2014 5 min read

Jason Swett doesn't think a college degree is worth the expense. He attended college on and off for five years, earning about half the credits he'd need to graduate.

Now 30 and living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Swett didn't continue with his studies because a few years ago he landed a six-figure software engineering job.

"I now charge my clients a three-figure rate in my own consulting business," says Swett, founder and CEO of Snip Salon Software. "I personally don't think college is a worthwhile investment, and I will encourage my two children to start their own businesses rather than go through college."

*Education Benefits

According to The College Board's Annual Survey of Colleges, the total cost for a student attending a four-year in-state college (including tuition, room and board, books and supplies, transportation and other expenses) is over $22,000. A student attending a private nonprofit four-year college pays nearly double.

Still The College Board says getting a college education is a solid investment. In their "Education Pays" report, they say over a 40-year full-time working life, the median earnings of those with a bachelor's degree, but without an advanced degree, have earnings 65 percent higher than those with only high school diplomas.

"On average, college graduates have much higher salaries than people with just a high school diploma and lower unemployment rates," says Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors, an information resource for students. He concludes: "There is no better investment that consistently pays higher returns."

Those with a college degree also are more likely to have better working conditions, a longer life and better health, says Laura Perna, Ph.D., executive director of Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy and professor for the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

"Even in the economic downturn, individuals with a college degree fared, on average, substantially better than those with lower levels of education," says Perna.

*Expenses vs. Earnings

Students need to balance their debt ratio to their prospective earnings upon graduation.

If the total debt is less than the student's first year starting salary, Kantrowitz estimates the full bill can be paid off within 10 years. Education debt that exceeds the starting salary is more troublesome.

"The borrower will struggle to repay his or her loans and will need an alternate repayment plan, such as extended repayment or income-based repayment, to afford the monthly loan payments," says Kantrowitz, who's also the author of "Filing the FAFSA."

*Real-World Skills

While he found many of his classes educational, Swett doesn't think his studies had useful applications for his career. He found a lot of materials and classwork were irrelevant or outdated. He's not alone in that sentiment.

"College is not the only road you have to go to, to get to success," says Felecia Hatcher, author of the book, "The 'C' Students Guide to Scholarships." "The entire institution of higher education is being threatened for the cost of course, but the value does not equal the cost or the time spent."

Hatcher says college course curriculum needs to be revamped so students are ready for the workplace. She suggests students study entrepreneurship and learn practical job skills such as computer coding. "We need to go back to vocational training, verifiable skills and producing producers," she says.

*College Cost-Cutting Tips

"Live like a student while you are in school so you don't have to live like a student after you graduate," says Kantrowitz, who offers the following suggestions on cutting college expenses:

--Enroll in a less expensive college.

--Buy used textbooks.

--Sell textbooks back to the bookstore at the end of the semester.

--Live at home or with a roommate to cut housing costs.

--Cut discretionary expenses such as extra meals.

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