Student Loan Debt and the American Academic Obsession

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Subtitle: When “Good Debt” Comes Back To Haunt Us

Several months ago the Wall Street Journal reported:

Americans owe some $826.5 billion in revolving credit, according to June 2010 figures from the Federal Reserve. [Most of revolving credit is credit-card debt]. Student loans outstanding today — both federal and private — total some $829.785 billion, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of and

Translation – Americans now owe more money on student loan debt than they do on credit cards.

That’s alright, isn’t it?  Because student loan debt is good debt!

bad student loan debt Or, maybe not.

Here’s my challenge (if anyone is listening): when it comes to higher education, we need to get out our current mode of thinking.

Here’s what I understand is the current approach to higher education.

  1. A kid graduates from high school.
  2. Regardless of that child’s aptitude, interest, and life goals, he goes or is sent to college.
  3. During her college years, the child seeks to find one’s self.
  4. While junior is attending college, either the parents or the student herself is accumulating tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt.
  5. No one bats an eye because it’s the right thing to do.

Personally, I think we are putting too much emphasis on education, and as a result, we encourage/justify students taking on thousands of dollars worth of debt. In the end, that debt then completely limits their future and makes students feel boxed in, not liberated.

Student Loan Debt Example #1- Little Steve

When Little Steve has a couple of years of high school left, everyone starts asking him, “Steve, where are you going to go to college?”  Steve automatically starts thinking about what college he wants to attend.  In a couple of years, he is on his way to Freshman classes.

At college, people start to ask him, “Steve, what do you want to major in?”  Steve automatically starts thinking about what college degree he wants to have.  Probably two or three majors later, Steve decides on a college major.

After graduation, people start asking Big Steve, “Steve, what kind of a career do you want to pursue?”

I kinda think that before Steve went to college he should have had a good sense of the career he wanted to pursue.

I worked two years in full-time youth ministry, and there are a few things that will make most parents panic and call the youth minister.

  1. Something involving a person of the opposite gender.
  2. Something involving drinking or drugs.
  3. Something involving a child who insinuates that he might not want to go to college.

“Craig, my son doesn’t think he wants to go to college. Can you please talk to him?”

I never panicked when a high school student thought she might not want to go to college.  Why? Because I didn’t want to go to college when I graduated from high school.

My experience with higher education and student loan debt

First, a little personal background that might offer some perspective.  When I graduated high school, I was ready to take a year off school.  I was burned out and felt like I lacked direction.  I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. With, what I assume, was the full support of my parents (at least they never tried to stop me), I took a year off school and attended a three month missionary training school and moved overseas for a few months.

I returned ready for college.

Typical Canadian students pay for college, so armed with money that I saved during my year off (and some very generous scholarships) I went off to a Christian college.  I finished a four year degree with some memories, a degree, a wife, some academic accomplishments, and $5,000 in debt.

Between my wife and I, our student loan debt was close to the $20,000 mark.  Within five years, my wife and I both completed a Masters Degree (she did a 36 hour program and I did an 84 hour program).  Within a year of graduating with our Masters degrees, we had no student loan debt.

The point is I didn’t do any of my higher education until I was ready.  I went to school when going to school was the right choice, not because I felt forced. I think we should encourage young people to do the same.

You know what would have happened if someone forced me?  I would have worked as hard as possible to underperform at every academic task. I proved it in some of my grade 13 classes (you’ll need to be Canadian to understand that).  I’m thinking about a Chemistry class I was forced to take.  In that class I got my first and only C in my life.

Higher education is a vehicle to help a person develop socially, academically, and even spiritually. But, until someone has direction, school might a waste of money.

When is higher education and student loan debt a waste of money?

  1. When you have no idea why you are attending school.
  2. When someone forces you to go.
  3. When you don’t care.

Unfortunately, a lot of kids are doing higher education and they fit the description above.

How to Get Value Out of Higher Education

  1. Be willing to entertain the question – is it worth it? “Worth” means different things to different people.  We will often make more sacrifices when we think something is more necessary.  While I support higher education, I think it is also important that we realize what we are investing in and what we are getting in return.
  2. Parents need to listen to their children about their hopes and dreams.  As a former youth minister, I know how scary it can be for parents the first time their child hints that she might not want to go off to school.  But, in this day and age, a person can find alternative avenues to accomplish his or her goals.  Not wanting to go to school now doesn’t mean they’ll never go to school.  But you can’t put enough pressure on someone to make them care.
  3. Students who carry a financial responsibility are more likely to carry an academic responsibility. I didn’t want to waste money on college.  I wasn’t about to go until I was ready.  When I went I applied myself to every class (except for US History because, out of principle, as a Canadian I begrudged the fact I was forced to learn US History.  I showed them by getting a B in the class).
  4. Do not make student loans your default mode, but Plan B.  Have a plan in place to try and graduate without student loan debt.  Here’s my guide on how to graduate college without student loan debt.  Far too many kids take on heaps of debt, and then they want to travel the world.  Open up your opportunities by minimizing your student loan debt threshold.

Final Note: Yes, there is a good chance that in 12 years when my kids start going to college, I’ll eat my words.  Please bookmark this page and check back in 12 years.

photo by Alan Cleaver

What are your thoughts about higher education and excessive student loans?


  1. says

    Great post. Starting off your life with a mountain of student debt is such a shame.

    I went to university in the UK for a short while before quitting to go start a business and travel. I was surrounded by ‘sheeple’ who didn’t seem know why they were there but went because that was the next thing to do. I went back to do a more practicable course a few years later on when I figured out what I wanted to do.

    • says

      Thanks for the comment. I think the vast majority of people do go to school with no idea about their future. Education is a tool some can use, but it is not for everyone.

  2. says

    A good investment would be doing well in high school. Good grades can be rewarded with a scholarship. The alternative is community college for two years. This is an opportunity to raise grades and finish at a good school. Everyone needs training after high school even if college is not the goal. There are apprentice programs with union trades, various technical trades and careers in personal services. Any of these choices does not preclude working part time.

    • says

      Doing well and getting the most out of education is the key (high school and beyond). You are right that a solid high school experience does put people in a positive place for future development. There is no sense of paying for an education if you’re not willing to fully invest yourself in the learning process.

  3. says

    I agree with you that education should be more focused and purposeful that it currently is, but just about any and all jobs out there requires training and education of some sort. Even if a high school grad wants to be a plumber, they’ll need some basic training, or they’ll never get a job. And one of the best reasons to go to college right after high school is that it only gets more difficult to put your life on hold to go back to school the older you get.

    • says

      Thanks for the comment.
      I think as the world economy evolves there are many opportunities (entrepreneurial) that don’t require a formal education. Either way getting education in a field you won’t use does serve some purpose, but one would get more value out of the experience if she waited until she knew the best field of interest.

  4. says

    Craig, I don’t think you will have to eat your words. I think there is growing momentum to question the traditional notion that “Education at ANY cost is always worth the expense.” I think the growing dissatisfaction of the cost of higher education and the rapid expansion of technology will bring education to many more people for less without going to these institutions. There are many that compare the abnormal inflationary rise in education costs to the rise of the American housing bubble and some think it is going to implode just the same.

    So these next 12 years are going to see some awesome things happen to education. People are going to do great things, without higher institution’s help.

    Did you see recently that 14 year old kid teach himself Apple code and created the most downloaded free App on the iTunes network? That’s what I am talking about…

    Keep up the good work,

    • says

      I also believer this an education bubble and it will burst. There will come a day and time when people will not longer pay outrageous amounts for an education. Like you said there are many alternative ways to get an education these days. Honestly, I very much support academics, but it is not the only way to make progress – especially for students how hate the traditional schooling system.
      Thanks for the comment.

  5. says

    Despite anecdotes to the contrary, the returns to higher education are substantial and growing.
    President Obama is making that point in his State of the Union 2011 speech, as I write. Admittedly, those returns are even higher for motivated students attending state-supported schools (such as, but not limited to community colleges) with a clear vocational orientation. But the returns are substantial across all demographic and social groups, including underachieving high school students.
    IMHO, the reason this topic even comes up, on a ‘Christian’ website, is constructively explained by Richard Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer Prize winning “Anti-intellectualism in American Life.” (1964). It was required reading in a class I took at the boarding school founded by D.L. Moody.

  6. says

    I remember one article I have read about top 10 richest people in America, and I quote – “being rich is not about education, it is about specialized knowledge” and I reiterate, that education is very important. It is one of the tools towards wealthiness. Being educated gives you ideas and information about businesses, entrepreneurship, and a lot more. So, it’s just a matter of hard works, patience, perseverance, and a lot more of ingredients toward success, and setting up goals one step at a time. They say education is expensive, but only for those who are lazy. There are lots of successful people who were not born with silver spoon in their mouth, but made it to the top. I don’t think all of them are indebted after college because of student loans.

  7. Alan says

    I have two kids of college age and have been living this college dilemma for several years. Back when I went to high school there were students who were clearly college bound and those heading for a trade. There was no social stigma or extra pressure to choose one path over the other; it was just what you were planning after high school. Today post high school education has become big business and is very competitive. There is marketing pressure applied to parents and students that today’s kids must do well in college. The marketing pressure to go to college at all costs, including loans, has reached a fever pitch. These “college opportunities” are starting to look like pay day loans or structured settlement advancements. I agree with Craig, it is a bubble that will pop. The ROI of going into debt for 10 years for a college degree that leads to a low paying job will cause this industry to fall in on itself.

    I like your comments on Getting Value out of Higher Education. I will comment on the second point. A lot of 17 year old high school graduates have no idea about their hopes and dreams. Some of them do not even know what this means or that it matters. The net is, a lot of them are clueless. In this case I think sending a kid off to a Christian college to take some basic courses is not a bad idea. The child gets to experience life away from home and learns to make their own decision. Taking these basic classes can help add clarity to focusing on their hopes and dreams. I think this idea only makes sense if it does not incur debt.

    • says

      Thanks for your feedback. Most of what I’m thinking about this topic is theoretical so it is nice to hear about the actual pressure parents (and kids have) when it comes to college planning.
      I’m 1000% more supportive of education if people were able to pay for all/most of it. Too many people are just piling up debt.
      Thanks for your comment. It gave me a lot to think about.

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