Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Higher Education Can Be a Financial Disaster

The great college hoax:

As steadily as ivy creeps up the walls of its well-groomed campuses, the education industrial complex has cultivated the image of college as a sure-fire path to a life of social and economic privilege.

Joel Kellum says he's living proof that the claim is a lie. A 40-year-old Los Angeles resident, Kellum did everything he was supposed to do to get ahead in life. He worked hard as a high schooler, got into the University of Virginia and graduated with a bachelor's degree in history.

Accepted into the California Western School of Law, a private San Diego institution, Kellum couldn't swing the $36,000 in annual tuition with financial aid and part-time work. So he did what friends and professors said was the smart move and took out $60,000 in student loans.

Kellum's law school sweetheart, Jennifer Coultas, did much the same. By the time they graduated in 1995, the couple was $194,000 in debt. They eventually married and each landed a six-figure job. Yet even with Kellum moonlighting, they had to scrounge to come up with $145,000 in loan payments. With interest accruing at up to 12% a year, that whittled away only $21,000 in principal. Their remaining bill: $173,000 and counting.

Kellum and Coultas divorced last year. Each cites their struggle with law school debt as a major source of stress on their marriage. "Two people with this much debt just shouldn't be together," Kellum says.

Read the whole thing.

While it boggles my mind that two people each making six-figure salaries can't pay off more than $21,000 in principal in 13 years, this article still paints a grim picture of not only college in general, but advanced degrees in particular. As I recently wrote, the cost-benefit analysis of most advanced degrees simply don't add up. Whether you're looking at an MBA, JD, or PhD -- if you're pursuing an advanced degree for financial reasons, chances are you're better off either going part-time or else not at all. Otherwise, you may end-up financially strapping yourself for life.

What makes college even more of a scam is that most schools sell all majors equally. From a financial perspective, this is clearly not the case and schools should do a better job informing students about realistic salary expectations after they graduate.

As one who has pursued multiple advanced degrees after working for years as an engineer, my advice is this. Keep debt to a minimum. Pursue a major that you enjoy but that also has good career prospects. (Engineering, economics, computer science, and business majors pay the best.) Don't pursue an advanced degree simply because you don't know what else you want to do -- that's an expensive way to delay making a career decision. Don't feel trapped working in a specific job simply because you have a degree that prepares you for that particular career. (All the more reason to focus on getting a versatile and employable bachelor degree.) Spend your 20s doing whatever it takes to figure out what you want to do with your life, who you want to spend it with, and where you want to live. (If you're past your 20s and still don't have these issues settled, no worries -- but start on all of these now. It's not going to get easier.) Don't make the bottom line your bottom line.

There's nothing wrong with pursuing higher education simply because you like to learn, but do so in a way that is financial responsible and don't go into it with illusions that it's sure to pay-off in the long run. Using myself as an example, I almost certainly would have been better off financially not coming back to school. But I knew that before coming in and had other reasons for pursuing my PhD. (I want to be a college professor.) I have also been intentional about keeping my debt to a minimum while in school -- getting my MBA in a part-time program (earning income while doing so and getting my company pay for a majority of my tuition) and only attending a PhD program that provided me with funding (I got into several higher ranked programs without funding). I decided to enter my JD/PhD program in part because the law school offered me a higher level of funding than my PhD program did and extended my overall funding by a couple of years. During the first year of my PhD program, I was also a resident advisor -- something that was a huge time-sink but allowed me to live rent-free for a year and kept me from digging into my savings during that entire time.

As in any other area of life, the decision to pursue higher education is a personal one that brings many trade-offs. The main lessons are to live within your means and keep debt within a manageable level. If you succeed in doing both of these, this will give you the best shot at being able to discover the career that best suits you and pursue the intellectual pursuits you feel driven towards. If you don't do this, you could find yourself financially shackled for a good portion of your adult life. That's a far cry from the financial promises many institutions of higher learning try to sell.

See related posts here.

(HT Dr. Helen)


Don said...

It's not surprising that people fall into this trap; most people have been bamboozled into believing that it's possible to buy things on credit as cheaply as they can for cash.

Until we can convince people that they're paying $1.10 (or far more) when they use credit to buy $1 items we have no chance of making them see that college costs aren't any different.

Anonymous said...

I can certainly relate, and I hope more and more people catch on to what you're writing about. My situation is somewhat more onerous however. I have an MBA, three children, and student debt in excess of $100,000. And, I have no job.

And, here's the kicker. Since I got my MBA in 2002, I have in the past seven years made over $50,000 one of those years! And, in fact have never held a job that even required one. Employeers just don't seem to care about an MBA. And I've never made enough to make timely payments on student loans!

So, my MBA can be described as the most expensive personal improvement plan EVER. That's the only value it has. It's because my university has no connections with industry to help students connect with meaningful jobs.

People need to attend universities that can demonstrate that they have the ability to connect alumni with meaningful jobs.

Real estate agents with experience and a lot less brains make more than I do! The value of those kinds of jobs should never be underestimated.

The first thing I am going to do is pay off my student loans - IF I can ever get a job!

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