Would I have done college differently if I had wanted to avoid debt?

Lightning in the desert

I’m annoyed when I think about debt. It’s a thing that I want to get away from, like a snoring person in the room, or a screaming baby on the plane. I want it gone.

When I was in high school, debt wasn’t something I thought about. I went to college and took out student loans, because that was “just what you did”. (Ugh.)

I was very fortunate in that my parents took out some loans along with mine, so we split the cost, but I had plenty of my own.

Years went by and I started going steady with my student loans. They were my partner, my companion in life. I thought this was also “just what you did”.

And then one day, I realized that there is no such thing as good debt. (Even a mortgage isn’t good debt, and I am going to get rid of mine as soon as possible.)

I have not enrolled in higher education since this realization, so I’ve never had the opportunity to try to attend school while hating debt.

But you may be in a different position. You may be reading this and looking at higher education. And wondering if it’s possible to achieve it without going steady with Sallie Mae forever.

So I’ve been thinking about what would I have done.

Would I have gone at all?

I can assure you that when I graduated high school, I had no income and almost no savings. I would have been able to attend college for approximately four minutes.

There’s a good chance I wouldn’t have enrolled in any college in the fall. As I was going to college not for any reason other than “that was just what you did”, an unintentional path wouldn’t have been available to me. I couldn’t have gone to school unless I actively worked for it.

Actually, I think this would have been a good thing.

There is a great passage in Robert Pirsig’s classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance that goes into the end result of someone going to college but without the strong reason for doing so:

Eventually he would see he wasn’t learning much; and facing the continual pressure of outside obligations, he would stop studying, feel guilty about this and stop attending class…The student, with no hard feelings on anybody’s part, would have flunked himself out. Good!

But what of this student after dropping out:

In time six months; five years, perhaps a change could easily begin to take place. He would become less and less satisfied with a kind of dumb, day-to-day shopwork…[So he would return to school] but with a difference. He’d no longer be a grade-motivated person. He’d be a knowledge-motivated person. He would need no external pushing to learn. His push would come from inside. He’d be a free man.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
This is one of my favorite books.

This passage resonates strongly with me. Because it describes a move from unintentional choices to intentional choices. Had I had to pay for college up front, I would have been forced to ask myself if it was really something I wanted to do. If it was—and I believe it would have been—I would have had to work for it.

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A cheaper college

I might have saved up money for a year or two, and then enrolled in a community or local college for the first two years or so, transferring to a full university eventually. Community colleges have classes that mortals can actually afford, so I could have bankrolled that, even working while I was going to school.

An alternate option would have been to go to a cheaper state school for all four years. I actually did end up graduating from a state school (though not actually in my state). I can’t say that I had the greatest experience there, but there could have been many reasons for that.

Does it matter what college you go to?

I have a Bachelors degree today, but no one cares where it’s from. (I don’t either, come to that.) I’ve only ever gotten two perks in my life from having this degree:

  • Employers are happy that I merely have a college degree
  • People tend to be impressed with my major (since it’s an uncommon one and sounds cool)

When I was younger, I was really into going to a “good” school. And this is the tough part, because I do wonder if my opportunities would have been different had I gone somewhere else. I know my education would have been the same, but so much of college is not about the education you get, but the experiences you have there.

The question I still can’t answer is: are the intangibles of going to a prestigious school worth debt? And if so, how much? $10,000? $50,000? $100,000?

Dear everyone: please give me money

This is embarrassing, but I never applied for scholarships. Ever.

But I’m intrigued by stories I hear about people who were able to pay for college almost solely through applying for scholarships.

I just found one site that claims to have millions of scholarships.

Let’s say that the average payout of a scholarship is $1,000.

Let’s also say that you’ll only succeed in getting 5% of the scholarships you apply for. One in twenty feels pretty conservative.

Let’s say that you need $50,000.

Do the math. (I’ll wait.)

There you go: Find 1,000 scholarships, and apply to all of them.

Is that a ton of work? Hell yes.

But if you spent a few months doing it as a full time job, and it gave you what you needed to get through college, would it be worth it? Hell yes.

Would it be worth it if it only got you part of the way there? Hell yes.

I think I would have loved this plan, but again, it would have required me to be intentional about going to college, instead of coasting into it.

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Some of the above

I think there’s a chance that I would have used a combination of all of these plans. And even still, there’s a chance I might even have taken on some level of debt, though much less than I ended up doing.

But the benefits of going to college intentionally would be the highest benefit of all. And since I’d feel that I was on the hook for it, I’d be motivated as hell. As Robert Pirsig said:

“Motivation of this sort, once it catches hold, is a ferocious force”

But enough about me. Would you do college differently today?

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