Trinity College campus in Dublin, Ireland
Photo by Ron Cogswell

It’s easy to sympathize with those stuck with thousands in student loans.

College in the United States is seen as a monumental step in someone’s life. It’s the last divide between relative childhood and the “real world”. High schools harp on the massive importance of college.

At a vulnerable crossroads in their life, students are taken advantage of by the unscrupulous.

“Don’t worry, take out some loans. College is the most important investment of your life. You’ll pay it back later when you’re rich,” says the pied piper.

The Pied Piper leads the children out of Hamelin. Illustration by Kate Greenaway for Robert Browning's 'The Pied Piper of Hamelin'
Beware the pied piper!

Often, parents, blinded by love for their children, fall for the piper’s song, too.

Eager to embark on this next stage of their life, students unknowingly sign their lives away. Four years later, many realize they were duped. By that point, though, they’re already on the hook.

There’s no doubt the current system is a mess. It’s a cesspool. There are many sewer rats out there looking to take advantage. But that doesn’t mean that falling into debt is unavoidable.

Here are some things you should know before heading off to college.

1. High school isn’t that big of a deal

Your high school GPA, SAT scores, and all those “extracurriculars” you managed to fit in are only good for getting into college. After high school, nobody cares anymore.

I have friends who for various different reasons (partying, not caring, moving to the US from a different country, etc.) didn’t do as well as they could have in high school.

Many of them turned it around and are now in high-paying jobs.

Here’s the plan they followed:

  1. Go to a community college near you.
  2. Take it seriously. Ace your classes.
  3. After 2 years (requirements vary depending on the university), transfer to the best public university in your state.
  4. Keep your grades up. (Staying above a 3.0 GPA is usually good enough, over 3.5 and you’re da belle of da ball.)
Michael Scott, aka Prison Mike, telling Ryan he'd be the belle of da ball in prison.

This plan has lots of benefits and basically no drawbacks:

  • Money: You graduate with less debt since community college is cheaper.
  • Social life: You still get to experience “university life” away from home. You can fit in plenty of partying and shenanigans in two years.
  • Jobs: You take advantage of the increased exposure of the university. Companies recruit more heavily at the state university than at the community college.
  • “Prestige”: No one knows (or cares) that you started at a community college. Your resume and diploma just say you graduated from the state university.

2. What you study plays a much bigger role than where you study

I graduated from the University of Florida with $30,000 in student loan debt, yet I was able to pay this off within the first six months of starting my job.

My girlfriend graduated with no debt at all. The paid internships she got each summer after the school year (even after her freshman year!) took care of a majority of her tuition and cost of living.

One of my roommates also paid for school on his own while pitching in to help his family. At his internship after junior year he was getting paid over $35 an hour.

The one thing we have in common is that we all studied engineering. (I’m throwing in Computer Science into the engineering bucket)

The crazy thing about studying engineering is that you don’t have to wait until after college to start cashing in. Paid internships are plentiful.

The majority of the people I knew studying engineering at the University of Florida managed to get paid internships following their sophomore and junior years. Some even managed to land internships after their freshman year.

Not only are these paid internships great learning experiences, but they often also lead to full-time jobs.

The people I know who studied engineering, finance, or accounting (admittedly, a fairly small sample) had no trouble finding jobs after graduation.

3. Private schools aren’t worth the sticker price

A study from Citizens Bank showed that 57% of college graduates regret taking out as many student loans as they did and 36% said they wouldn’t have gone to college if they knew how much it would end up costing.

There’s no reason not to go to the best public school you can get into in your own state. (In-state tuition is much lower than out-of-state tuition)

The only exceptions to this rule I can think of are the Ivy League schools (and not even all of them depending on what you plan to study) along with Stanford and MIT.

[You make connections at these schools that you wouldn’t make elsewhere. Plus, they generally give generous financial aid packages.]

You’ll receive the same quality of education at a public university, but at a much lower price. In fact, public universities often have resources smaller private schools can’t afford (research laboratories, entrepreneurship grants, etc.).

If you’re not quite sure what you want to study or are planning to study a less profitable field, then this is all the more reason to keep costs low.

The large enrollment at state universities also means you’ll come across all sorts of people. There are intramural sports and countless clubs and organizations. It won’t be too hard to find your tribe.

Conclusion

  • Attending university is a financial decision: Student debt is now over $1.3 trillion. That’s a 1 followed by twelve zeros. Enough money to give every single person in the US about $4,000. I find it hard to grasp how big this number really is. College is a time for personal growth and learning and, yes, partying, but it comes at a cost. Minimize your costs by attending a state university and maximize your earning potential by studying an in-demand field.
  • Follow your dreams, responsibly: I realize not everyone wants to study engineering. I realize that some people don’t care much about money. There are people who want to go into the Peace Corps or want to study environmental ecology knowing they won’t make much money. The are people who want to be musicians or nomads, free to travel the world. There’s nothing romantic or “cool” about being financially responsible. But you’ll be surprised at how quickly rent and debt can put a dampener on your dreams. Being financially sound gives you the best shot at living life on your terms.