Death, Taxes, and Student Loans

“Give a man an education and he will build a new world. But give that man a loan, and you can own that man forever.”


According to a CBS article published last month, two-thirds of American employees regret their college degrees, referring to a PayScale survey of 248,000 respondents. Given the national price tag (now nearly $1.6 trillion), the average American with a college experience is suffering from buyer’s remorse. When you look at the lifetime of repayment, is it any wonder why?

Just this past spring I paid off my student loans. It wasn’t easy and it sure as hell wasn’t fun. In fact, the chest-thumping euphoria died out rather quickly. I’m still relieved the payments are over, but life quickly got on with itself. So I now have the opportunity to look back at all of it: Now that it’s paid for, was college worth it?

At the end of my senior year in high school, I began the process to prepare to go to college. Why was I going to college? I had no idea. It was just expected of me. The mantra was “Do well in high school so you can go to college so you can get a good job.” What the hell was a “good job?” No idea. What was I going to study in college to get this good job? Who knows. In retrospect, it’s disturbing I was herded to a major life decision that involved tens of thousands of dollars and fifteen years of repayment because of a stupid mantra. I had no guidance, no plan, and no ambition to it.

So I went to college. For four and a half years I studied stuff. I took the math requirements, but the majority of classes were heavy loaded with history and film classes. I eventually majored in both. I’ve always loved film and made films in middle school and was a camera junkie. I was excited that I could actually study film at the University of Pittsburgh. I was going to have a career in film.

When I graduated, I found myself on the street with two sheets of paper and a huge loan. So where was this “good job” I was supposed to get? How was I going to pay for my loans with a piece of paper that said I understood the philosophies and influences behind French New Wave cinema, or the historical impact of the Magna Carta? I did what many adrift humanities scholars do: I got a job in retail. When I started my retail career at Apple in 2005, I quickly found myself at home amongst various creative people that had also gone to college but never found that “good job” promised to them if they went to college.

So the short answer is “NO” I wouldn’t have gone to college if I could go back to that moment. At least not until I had a plan. Or understood the breadth of tens of thousands of dollars in interest-bearing loans. If I wanted to be a filmmaker, I should’ve gotten a job, saved up, and made a film. When I did finally make my first film in 2012, it was the greatest education I’d ever had — something no classroom could ever compete with. Sure, not going to college would’ve roiled my household, my parents ranting about how I would become a bum or homeless if I didn’t go to college.

Just to be clear: I’m saying college may not have been the best choice for me personally. My success in recent years came from knowledge and learning I provided myself through reading and experience. None of it came from anything I learned in a classroom. I have the utmost respect for those attending college for engineering, science, and medical fields. There’s no way round it and it’s not even up for discussion. If you’re one of these fine people, please continue your scholastic journey. Not surprisingly, the group most regretful, according to the CBS News article, were those that studied in humanities.

College degrees used to be a novel thing. In 1940, only about 5% of Americans completed 4 years of college. Now, more than one-third of Americans over the age of 25 have a college degree or higher. A college degree doesn’t mean quite what it used to. It’s become the baseline for education to employers. So to get that novelty again, people push for Masters degrees and PhDs. That all adds up. I know lots of people working to get a MBA to make themselves more valuable to employers. Most of those people are still working retail.

How much do these things really matter in the 21st century? Technology has changed so many things and knowledge flows freely through the internet. Does a degree mean anything (except for the aforementioned science and medical fields) anymore? I’m 37 years old and a lot of people in my generation are creating their own careers through side hustles and startups. Does having an MBA make you a better entrepreneur? Do you need a four year degree to come up with a gizmo or product to make people’s lives better? How many successful YouTubers or Amazon FBA businesses went to college to learn how to do it?

I think over the next generation or so, people will begin to shun college. It will become cost prohibitive. Why take out $30,000 in loans with interest when you can look up what you’re interested in online? I don’t believe colleges will adjust to the drop in admissions well, either. I suspect most colleges have a lot of bloat, raking in tuition that’s easily supplied by private and public loans, their students not really aware of the true cost. When those tuition numbers start to dip, will colleges be prepared to adapt? Recall that LSU was exploring bankruptcy just a few years ago. They’ll likely hike tuition to try and make up for it, and even more will walk away. The cost of college has grown out of control — much like the housing market in 2008 or the tech market in 2000 — and a reset is inevitable.

“Free college for everyone” is not the answer, either. Are the professors going to teach for free? Administrators file paperwork as charity? These employees must still be paid, so someone has to pay for it. “Free college” will be paid by the taxpayer or through government loans that add to the national debt. It doesn’t fix the problem. It also doesn’t guarantee everyone gets that “good job” upon graduation. I also believe you should pay for your own choices, not have others pay for it or else there’s no real value in it.

Be smart about your choices, particularly when they involve loans and interest. College is fine if that’s what you truly want to do, but understand the risk.

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