Don't pay interest on your dreams
May 7, 2010 in: Reflections on the River
Graduation season is my favorite time of year.
I devour the special section of the newspaper, looking at all the beautiful senior pictures and reading every single graduate’s plans for the futures. Their bright-eyed optimism inspires me. As long as small-town high schools keep turning out these fine men and women, there is hope for our country.
Savor this time, graduates. At this pinnacle, you can look back on a goal accomplished and look forward to unlimited possibilities. Your dreams are fresh and alive. You know you have something to contribute that the world has never seen before.
But before we get carried away shooting for the stars, let’s talk about something you won’t hear inside a crowded gymnasium any Sunday afternoon: Debt.
The trend is very troubling about how much debt college students are amassing. The average is now $20,000. And that’s before they even start working. One of the most difficult lessons to learn early in life is that actions have consequences. While in school, it’s easy to brush off another $5,000 or $10,000 loan. But every dollar borrowed is a burden that will follow you long after fast times at the student union are but a memory.
So, aim high, wear sunscreen and keep student loans from suffocating you. As someone who graduated without debt, I feel obligated to share my advice for getting an education and keeping your head above water.
Don’t go to college. Since kindergarten, you’ve been told you must go to college to get a good job. It’s not true in this technological era. Look seriously at trade and technical schools. Who do you think is earning a better living – a skilled mechanic or a literature major? The trade fields also have the advantage that they cannot be outsourced and you have more opportunities to go into business for yourself. Demand is high for skilled workers. Wind farms, for instance, are snatching up students in technical programs even before they graduate.
Don’t get in a hurry. Think about taking a lighter class load so you can hold a job and pay for school as you go. I recently worked with an intern who took six years to get through college. He’ll graduate with less than $2,000 due on loans. He’s also more mature, has more experience and is a step ahead of other graduates.
Don’t work. Outside of the farm, I did not work in high school. Speech contests and FFA events were my “job” and I approached them diligently to earn scholarship money. Good grades and well-rounded activities are still the best route to earning scholarship money. The university actually cut me a check most semesters because my scholarships exceeded tuition. That money went toward living expenses for the semester. It is possible to graduate debt-free, but it takes some planning.
Don’t lose your scholarship. It may only be $250 a semester, but over the course of your education, that adds up to $2,000 of free money that you will not have to borrow or pay interest on. That scholarship will yield a return for years. So will good grades, for that matter.
Don’t listen to your teachers. Unless your goal is to be a history professor, you won’t get good career advice from a history professor. They teach and inspire and light the flame of knowledge, but the world of academia is not where most us make our living. Pay attention to advice from your parents and those working in your chosen field. Health insurance, mortgage payments and the price of gas will affect your quality of life just as much as whatever minor you choose.
Don’t forget your other dreams. A career is only part of your life, and probably not the part that will make you happiest. Do you want to raise a family? Buy a house? Go hunting every weekend? Volunteer in missions or the Peace Corps? Student loans will require you to keep working, even at a job you don’t like, and limit other options for years to come.
Don’t buy the hype about big-name schools. Employers are looking at credit reports before hiring. Going to community college for two years or living at home and graduating with little debt could make you a more attractive job candidate than someone who went to that certain school and is tugging a mountain of debt behind them.
Don’t pay interest on your dreams. Make your dreams work for you.
Cue the “Pomp and Circumstance.” Congratulations to the Class of 2010! May you always be as full of hope and free of debt as you are today.