May 9, 2012

So you want to go to college. Good decision! There’s a good chance followers of Jesus played a key role in starting your school, even if you don’t attend a Christian college. These heroes showed us how to glorify God by exercising his gift of thinking. Following in their steps, you will be one of the relatively few around the world with the intellectual and financial means to attend college. You have been given this rare gift so you can bless others, not merely enrich yourself. That perspective will help you study harder even as you look for ways to serve the community and share the gospel of Jesus Christ during these life-changing years.

As a college student you may be tempted to look down on others who don’t enjoy the blessings of higher education. After all, it’s only growing harder these days to support a family—even just yourself—without an undergraduate diploma. On average, college graduates earn about $22,000 more annually than peers who did not finish a degree. The high unemployment rate for young workers may discourage you; it’s not the best time to be 20. But imagine trying to find a job you might enjoy with decent benefits and prospects for advancement if you didn’t pursue at least two years of further education after high school. And surely you’re familiar with the social benefits of college. You’re probably looking forward to making interesting new friends and learning how to live away from home. As long as you live, your alma mater will make you proud. You might not even mind that they never stop asking for money, even when their endowment exceeds $31 billion.

I should warn you, however: Someone has to pay, and college isn’t getting any cheaper. Your parents have probably pointed this out a time or two. (Go easy on them. The recession took a big bite out of their retirement accounts, and a year or two of private college tuition and board probably costs about what they paid for the house you grew up in.) Friends, guidance counselors, and admissions officers can surely point you to the various payment options. If you’ve studied hard enough to make it into one of those $5-billion-dollar-endowment schools, you might qualify for the best aid of all: need-based grants. No matter where you attend, sign up for work-study and fit at least 10 hours into your schedule. (Hint: Find a job like mine working in a quiet section of the library where you can also study.) When you’ve exhausted every other method of paying for your education (including scholarships: you’d be surprised by how many of your peers never bother to even fill out the forms), then we can finally talk about the main reason I’m writing you today: student loans.

You’ll hear many voices tell you student loans are “good debt.” By this they mean you’re borrowing at relatively low interest rates for something that should produce great financial return over many decades. (Examples of bad debt would include cars and credit cards.) Indeed, student loans make sense if the federal government subsidizes them (get to know the meaning of Stafford and Perkins) and you limit their size by following the strategy we discussed earlier. That’s easier said than done today. The average student debt has climbed to $25,250. Maybe that number doesn’t grab your attention. This one will: Education debt now surpasses $1 trillion, topping even the absurdly high amount we Americans owe credit card companies.

Our fears of debt have not kept pace with the frightful surge in education costs. The College Board tells us tuition and fees at public, four-year colleges have nearly tripled in less than 20 years. That’s not even the worst news. With the recession forcing cuts in state budgets, public school costs spiked 8.3 percent in 2010 alone. That Christian college you’re considering probably isn’t in much better shape, since the market crash slashed their endowments, already smaller than many of their secular counterparts. During the same time public-school costs tripled, private-school costs more than doubled.

Just in time for you to head off to school, America faces a crisis of education costs. That’s why President Obama slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon during a recent tour of several colleges and called on Congress to impose a one-year freeze on Stafford loan interest rates, which will otherwise double on July 1. Unless Congress obliges, more than 7 million students will pay about $1,000 more on their loans. But where does the federal government find another $6 billion to offset these costs? I hate to bear bad news, but the adults in charge have a hard time agreeing on how to solve these problems. And you thought student council meetings were a lot of talk and no action!

As we search in vain for ways to control education costs, we’re only beginning to understand the social costs of our student debt. You and your parents should read and discuss this recent article from The Wall Street Journal. Marriage and children might seem a long way off right now, but you don’t want to end up like these folks, who sacrificed family by taking out more than $75,000 in student loans they can’t repay. The decisions you make today about how to pay for school will determine many other lifestyle decisions for decades to come. Remember, you can’t escape your student loans in bankruptcy. Beg to borrow today, but you’ll never plead your way out of these debts.

In conclusion, I’m tempted to tell you to pick a challenging but safe major like pre-med or engineering where you’ll greatly improve your chances of earning a large salary and avoiding pesky creditors. I’ve also considered advising you against enrolling in that costly private school with the beautiful campus and low faculty-to-student ratio. But with a journalism and history degree from an expensive private university under my belt, I’m hardly qualified to counsel practicality.

So here’s my final bit of advice: leave yourself options for God to lead where you don’t expect to go. You may find that lucrative career as a professional musician or lawyer doesn’t excite you at 21 the way it did when you were 18. With God’s blessing, your faith in Jesus Christ will surpass your current imagining during the next four years. And God often calls fervent young believers during college to give themselves in service as pastors and missionaries. Or you may identify with an exciting non-profit seeking justice for the poor and oppressed. These careers will not likely compensate you well. Sizable debt will tempt you to bypass them. But who wants to study four years just so you can work a job the next 20 to pay for it? Student debt isn’t worth the price of freedom to follow God in your career, marriage, and family choices.

You’re going to love college. Think hard. Think to the glory of God. And think before you sign those loan papers.


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