College tuition in the US rises somewhere in the vicinity of 7% a year. Wage inflation rises between 1%-4%, depending on the source you consult and how good a year we’re having.
This is clearly, mathematically unsustainable. You don’t even need to be fully aware to see that at this rate, college will eventually become unaffordable for effectively everyone. In some ways, it’s already gotten that way.
You have been warned. And there is no longer any excuse for not knowing the facts. Not anymore
Your income vs. your college
The average household income these days is around $50,000 per year. So with a price tag somewhere between $50,000 and $250,000 depending on whether you go to a public college in-state or go to NYU (or anything in between), the average college experience is approximately one time to five times the average yearly household income.
Think about that: After college, if you were to put 100% of your income toward paying off everything you owe from college, it would take you between one and five years to do so. And that’s household income, which generally assumes more than one person.
But even I forgot taxes in that calculation. A $50,000 salary is more like $30,000 after taxes. So now it’s more like 3 to 9 years of 100% of your income to pay for college.
And this is assuming that you can find a job that pays a living wage, which is not easy, especially if you graduated into a market downturn. If you make $15/hour (which translates into roughly $30,000 a year, or $20,000 after taxes) now we’re up to 5 to 12 years of 100% income.
These numbers are simply ludicrous. And there is only one conclusion: If you don’t plan this part of your life well, you could be paying off your student loans after you retire.
What a waste of your time and energy.
Your graduation year vs. my sympathy
But what does this mean for you? The answer depends on when you graduated, or plan to graduate.
If you graduated ten years ago or before (like I did), I don’t believe that the odds are totally against you. Tuition was high, yes, but hadn’t spun quite so out of control. I believe that even a four year private college debt is manageable. And the hope is by now you’ve managed to find some kind of living wage (because if you haven’t done that, all bets are off).
It’s the folks who graduated around the time of the housing bust who I have the most sympathy for. These people really got screwed, not just because of graduating into a market downturn, but because it wasn’t yet widely understood that the math for college didn’t add up anymore. Add in the downturn and you have a cross-section of the population who have a debt load that’s disproportionate to their current job opportunities.
Hopefully this will change. But in the meantime, being saddled with debt is not doing them, or the economy, or anyone else other than schools and the loan holders any good. These are the people who need assistance the most.
This understanding that getting a college degree doesn’t always pay off only came about as the downturn hit, so 2008-2009 or so. But now, it’s pretty well understood. College is great if you can afford it, and it does allow for many opportunities, but prosperity due to a college degree is not guaranteed, and it’s a definite gamble of your future earnings to go into tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars of debt.
Are you thinking of going to college? Do you know someone who is? Do you have children who are planning to go to college? (Or will you? If so, start saving now.)
I want anyone who wants to go to college to be able to go. But as of now, everyone knows that college isn’t guaranteed to pay off. And every year, as tuition inflation overtakes that of wages, the equation gets worse. This means that you need to be more intentional about this important time in your life and focus on outcomes (and not do any of this).
And if this is you, you do not have the luxury of graduating and saying “I didn’t know how bad it was going to be.”
If you go to a four year private college today and believe that you can major in Noncommittal Arts, have no plan for making a living wage, and assume that everything will just work out, you are living in a fantasy. A fantasy that includes personal economic malaise.
There is no excuse for this. Not anymore.
If you graduated in the mid to late 2000s and into the 2010s, you have my utmost sympathy. We need to help you out in some way, as you got a bum deal.
But after that, cry me a river. Things are different now. Whether it should be this way is one thing, but you can’t say you didn’t know.