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The Student Loan Debt Disaster

This is a riveting essay by M.H. Miller, who writes about the crushing effect of student loan debt on his life. [1] Here’s the heart of it:

My debt was the result, in equal measure, of a chain of rotten luck and a system that is an abject failure by design. My parents never lived extravagantly. In the first years of their marriage, my father drove a cab. When they had children and my father started a career in the auto industry, we became firmly middle class, never wanting for anything, even taking vacations once a year to places like Myrtle Beach or Miami. Still, there was usually just enough money to cover the bills—car leases, a mortgage, groceries. My sister and I both attended public school. How much things cost was a constant discussion. Freshman year of high school, when I lost my yearbook, which cost $40, my mother very nearly wept. College, which cost roughly $50,000 a year, was the only time that money did not seem to matter. “We’ll find a way to pay for it,” my parents said repeatedly, and if we couldn’t pay for it immediately, there was always a bank somewhere willing to give us a loan. This was true even after my parents had both lost their jobs amidst a global financial meltdown. Like many well-meaning but misguided baby boomers, neither of my parents received an elite education but they nevertheless believed that an expensive school was not a materialistic waste of money; it was the key to a better life than the one they had. They continued to put faith in this falsehood even after a previously unimaginable financial loss, and so we continued spending money that we didn’t have—money that banks kept giving to us.

I’ve spent a great deal of time in the last decade shifting the blame for my debt. Whose fault was it? My devoted parents, for encouraging me to attend a school they couldn’t afford? The banks, which should have never lent money to people who clearly couldn’t pay it back to begin with, continuously exploiting the hope of families like mine, and quick to exploit us further once that hope disappeared? Or was it my fault for not having the foresight to realize it was a mistake to spend roughly $200,000 on a school where, in order to get my degree, I kept a journal about reading Virginia Woolf? (Sample passage, which assuredly blew my mind at the time: “We are interested in facts because we are interested in myth. We are interested in myth insofar as myth constructs facts.”) The problem, I think, runs deeper than blame. The foundational myth of an entire generation of Americans was the false promise that education was priceless—that its value was above or beyond its cost. College was not a right or a privilege but an inevitability on the way to a meaningful adulthood. What an irony that the decisions I made about college when I was seventeen have derailed such a goal.

I was thinking as a read it, “Well, your problem is you spent $200,000 for literature degrees. Duh!” But then Miller writes about going to a social event organized by a student loan company for debtors (weird, eh?), and meeting others who were struggling as he is:

Despite the name tags, the dinner turned out to resemble something more like an AA meeting, an earnest session of group therapy. Everyone had their story about the problems caused by their student loans and how they were trying, one day at a time, to improve things, and no story was exceptional, including my own. Ian, an employee for Google who had recently successfully paid off his debt from a Columbia MBA program, became something like my sponsor for the evening. He said he had a few “bone dry” years, where he lived on Instant Noodles. I told him I had a long way to go. “At least you’re doing something about it,” he said, sincerely.

We sat down to dinner. Across from me was Mira, a defense attorney from Brooklyn, who attended law school at Stanford. Her payments amount to $2,300 a month, more than double my own. When I asked her why she came to this event, she glanced at me as if the answer should have been obvious: she went to law school at Stanford and her payments are $2,300 a month. The table, myself included, looked on her with an odd reverence. She wore a business suit and had her hair pulled back, but I saw her as something like the sage and weathered biker of the group, holding her twenty-year chip, talking in her wisdom about accepting the things you cannot change.

Two Ivy League graduates with “useful” degrees — business and law — and they’re crushed by debt that they can’t pay back.

Read the whole thing.  [1]

The central point of the essay makes sense to me, because I grew up with it too: college is the magic credential, the gateway to financial security. Truth is, in most cases, if you don’t go to college, your options are limited. The mistake is believing that no sacrifice is too great for a college degree.

As I’ve said here before, I was very lucky in that my father, a Depression baby, was adamant that he was not going to let me take out loans to pay for an undergraduate education. I had a full scholarship to LSU. Yes, my high school friends were going to the Ivies or other prestigious schools. Good for them, said my dad: you’re going to LSU.

I thought he was History’s Greatest Monster — a reputation he renewed when he wisely told me that he wasn’t going to let me go to Belgium for a junior year abroad, because he knew I’d spend it in the pub, and lose my scholarship; he was right about that too, the SOB. Man, what a gift that old man gave me by being such a hard-ass about no debt. He didn’t care what other people said, he was sticking to his guns. This took a basic orneriness that most of us don’t have. I can remember a lot of us in my generation thought that if we got into a great college, then whatever we have to pay to get a degree from it is worthwhile. We never questioned why. We believed the myth.

This can’t go on. What an expensive education, in every sense of the word!

UPDATE: Reader Joseph C.:

Sorry for how long this is. The TL:DR – Professional, employed Christian millennial man and his wife are struggling with student loan debt, leaving them less options than their parents had and postponing many life moments like having kids.

My wife and I went to a Christian liberal arts college for undergrad and we both have our masters degrees in what one could call “useful” jobs: Graphic Design (me, for a Christian company) and Education (my wife, for a charter school).

I was a part of the generation in the late 90s who were told to not worry about college debt and just take out the loans. Luckily, later on when I worked for a military research consulting firm, we were able to pay for half of my wife’s graduate school tuition out of pocket (she worked for a private school at the time who only reimbursed 300 dollars a semester for continuing education); however, once the Freedom Caucus took over in 2010, many of our research grants dried up and I was downsized, leading to us needing to take out loans.

Currently our monthly student loan payments are the second highest bill we pay after our mortgage. Food is our fourth largest bill. Our third is our medical bills (but we can HSA for that). We haven’t defaulted in the last 13 years and have tried many ways to reduce the debt, but it is still crushing. And my wife can’t find full time teaching work at a good school. We live in the midwest and all she can get is an hourly part-time job at a charter school, which she still makes more money at than some of our friends who are full time at Christian elementary schools.

We have very little credit card debt (only one in our household) and do our best to live within our means (the credit card is there to help with unexpected car bills, etc).

I have taught as an adjunct professor at my alma mater to make some ends meet, but I see how much MY students have to pay now over what I did. These kids are getting out of school with debt almost as much as owning a home. It is no surprise to me why they move back in with their parents while they have the weight of a college mortgage on their backs. Also no surprise why they will wait longer to get married and even longer to have kids (we weren’t financially stable enough to start having kids until our early 30s despite being married for 8 years).

The economy may be good for some Boomers, they may even remember a time when in-state college tuition was manageable, but for the vast majority of younger Americans with college degrees, it isn’t. My wife would love to be a stay at home mom, but the weight of our debt makes it a necessity for her to work.

We have a plan to pay down the debt aggressively, but it means me getting a second job for the next 10 years. If you want to be a middle-class, college-taught, 30 something homeowner and parent, this is the reality. Working harder and longer than our parents to just break even (and if you had to take out some private Navient [used to be Sallie Mae] loans, good luck paying those down at all since they can neatly adjust the interest rates to keep you on forever and making overpayments very difficult to go toward principle).

My wife and I have a plan in place for our son if he wants to attend college: He can move back in as soon as he graduates on the condition that he spends what would be rent money on aggressively paying down his inevitable loans. Because right now we can’t save for HIS college while we are still trying to pay off OUR college.

Thank you for bringing this up. I hope more people in the Gen-X and Boomer generations can appreciate that the stereotype of the lazy, entitled millennial is more fiction than fact. Most of my friends who have kids have some sort of side income, they need to and are very hardworking.

Also, one of the small concessions to us who struggled with student loan debt was the ability to write off the interest we paid on our taxes. Thanks to the new tax law, that goes away.

I guess the answer is: Millennials work even harder. Take on as many additional jobs as you can. A college degree doesn’t pay all the bills and a masters degree (as my wife is finding out from losing out on many interviews to fresh-from-undergrad, cheaper teachers) can be a huge liability.

What a bill of goods we were sold, huh? Had I known this was to be my future, I would’ve gone to college part-time, worked full time and paid my tuition in cash. But I was 18. I had no idea, and every adult around me told me not to worry about it.

… and every adult around me told me not to worry about it. I know that’s true. That’s a familiar story.

UPDATE.2: Reader DennisW:

[Having gotten to the end of this below, I apologize for it being quite long. But in some way it felt good to write it, as it did reading Rod’s original post – I know I am not alone anyway, though it feels like it most times – so I’ll leave it as is.]

I understand exactly where he is coming from. Taking on student loan debt for law school was the worst decision of my life – it is, 18 years later, still crushing me, and may very well end up killing me – and has deprived me of any sense of hope for years, as one thing after another fails to pan out job-wise, and interest keeps compounding upon interest (the vast majority of my loan balance now is usurious capitalized interest. In 2012 I had to file a Chapter 13, mainly to stop them harassing my co-signer parents. I was wrongly told by my attorney that the Chapter 13 tolled the interest during the 5 years, and that my balance would be significantly less after. Instead I found out late last year when the Chapter 13 ended that in fact interest continued to accumulate during the time I was on the court payment plan, that that my balance is now $248,000 – some $75,000 more than when the Chapter 13 started despite 5 years of payments), with no reasonably conceivable way of escape or hope of ever paying it off (my current pay-off date is projected to be around 2050 – when I’ll be 76). It was easy at the time to just sign the forms and assume somehow it would all work out and not really think about the burden you were taking on by shackling yourself to a mountain of debt before you really even get started in life. I have a niece who is now a sophomore in high school, and my one bit of advice to her and anyone her age, would be to never take on student loan debt, even if it means going to community college or something instead for a while. No school is worth the potential for decades of crushing debt burden.

Like many in the late 90s, I went to law school with still only a vague idea of what I really wanted to do with my life – mainly interested in wanting to just go back to school to put off the “real world” of work for a while longer. I never really had a great desire to practice law, and having spent time abroad in college, had hoped to get into the foreign service after law school (this was pre-9/11 when working abroad in various embassies struck me as exciting rather than making yourself a sitting duck for the next bomber).

Anyway, I passed the foreign service exam, but ultimately didn’t get hired. Depressed and in a funk, mostly floundering around, I did some temporary doc reviews gigs for a while in DC, tried to make contacts through alumni groups, etc., read every “alternative careers for JDs book I could find – “you can do anything with a law degree”; “the JD is the new MBA” were mantras repeated ad nauseam in those days. Though most of these “alternative careers” were wildly unrealistic without already established means or connections). Despite having gone to good schools (ND & Tulane Law) I got few interviews or interest in my resume (mostly courtesy meetings from alumni of the “good luck, we don’t have anything here, but we’ll keep you in mind…etc.” type).

Ultimately I moved back home took the bar in my home state, yet still (by now a couple years out of school and mostly having done temp doc review work and never having worked at a firm – rather than do the summer clerk thing during school, I spent my summer at study abroad programs in Paris and Prague), had trouble generating interest in my resume or getting may interviews for entry-level associate jobs (having been out of state for most of the past 7 years, and not having gone to law school in my hometown or state, I didn’t have those local school connections to fall back on either, and had no connections at firms through family, etc.). Anyway, ultimately ended up trying to “put up my own shingle” and go solo. Became the contract attorney for a company working with their clients in my state (I don’t want to go into a whole lot of detail). Ultimately, however, I didn’t have the resources to really set up properly, and was dependent on that company and a couple local financial advisors to feed me clients. When that company’s business began to decline significantly around the time of the financial crisis of 2008-2010 or so, it really put me in a bind, since I was so dependent on them for most of my client base (and I had been able to work from home and avoid overhead for office etc. Marketing clearly isn’t my skill, and I had little resources anyway for advertising etc, to try to build a new client base).

Ultimately, staying solo became unsustainable. I had to rely on loan deferments to get by (which led to the repeated cycles capitalized interest every time I got a deferment, which led to ultimately led to the chapter 13). In the end that lead also to losing a house and then an apartment (and health insurance, which I’ve not had for years now – thanks to the ironically-named “Affordable Care Act” my premium was set to go from $70/mo to $270/mo, so I had to drop it).

Having been focused in a very narrow area of law with little exposure to other areas with that company I had been getting most of my business from, I am finding it near impossible to generate any interest from firms (especially at my age now and without bringing a portfolio of business to them), and am mostly looking outside law now, though finding many options there either (unless I want to go work in a warehouse for Amazon or something. I’ve even tried some 1099 sales jobs – they will “hire” anybody – but in the end I’m just not a “salesman” type). Having little in the way of other work experience except my legal work, it’s been hard to figure out what else I can do here or find options, or generate interest from companies that want a specific kind of experience. Just telling them I’m reasonably smart, have read a lot of books, learn quickly, and have good degrees doesn’t do much for me. Also, having the chapter 13 on my credit has kept me form getting more than one job I appeared to have had locked-down before they background check; in my state, unlike some, it is legal for employers to refuse to hire based on a personal bankruptcy on your record, even if the job doesn’t entail access to or responsibility for company money, since they can deem you an “embezzlement risk” or assume bankruptcy filing indicates lack of good character or judgment in general). Soul-crushing drudgery in some meaningless job for little pay in some warehouse or cubicle seems the only option left (yet I’m repeatedly told “the Trump economy’s booming, someone with your education and background should be bale to find something great in no time. Right.)

In sum, things are worse now than ever (I was better off financially before I went to law school), and my financial situation is once again coming to a head – having made a few regular payments on my revived loans after the chapter 13 ended last year – and with nothing working out on the job front (though still licensed as an attorney, my client base has dried up, with that company having effectively folded their operations here). I am now approaching default again, with the only option probably being another chapter 13, and apparently endless cycle I feel stuck in now that will hound and haunt me and crush me to the end of my days (and will in all likelihood shorten them).

Over the years since my law school and college
days also, my interests in life in general focus have changed quite a bit, yet I don’t know where to turn to find something that will be not only spiritually and intellectually fulfilling and life-enhancing but also give me even the slightest ability to really live free from such crushing financial burden (my debt burden being such that even if I found a reasonably well-paying job tomorrow, I’d find it hard to have enough left-over after debt service and back taxes to be able to get even a reasonable apartment, replace a dying 12 year-old car, etc.).

I envy those people Rod writes about in those BenOp communities who seem so grounded, and spiritually and morally fulfilled in a life of meaning, without crushing debt burdens and sense of the utter hopelessness and futility of even trying anything anymore because nothing short of winning the lottery will relieve a soul-and-life-crushing weight on your back. I actually don’t want much anymore, I’ve long sine given-up any real expectations for much out of this life – I don’t need a McMansion or Bentley – I just want to be left alone mostly, to life simply, and escape from the drudgery and ugliness of modern life (over the years I’ve come more and more to find most of modern life and the general culture – political, social, economic, etc – of this country intolerable and nauseating. I find little around me that I want to be a part of at all).
I dream of running off to a hermitage somewhere and just being alone with my favorite books and music and films, cultivating my own little garden, at peace with the world. But gone are the days when, Dostoevsky-like, one could simply take a train across a border and leave creditors and the long arm of the state behind in exile. Nowadays there is no escape, they will hunt you down anywhere (and harass you 10 times a day with phone calls, as if expecting you to have miraculously come into money since the last call an hour ago), and your life will be an utter hopeless misery that will make the peace of the grave seem a blissful alternative to life in this world.

Suicide as preferable to laboring under the crushing burden of debt. The author of the original essay has toyed with the same temptation.

284 Comments (Open | Close)

284 Comments To "The Student Loan Debt Disaster"

#1 Comment By J May On July 13, 2018 @ 2:21 pm

Rod, this is my anti-narrative to the ones experienced by the others you’ve posted.

I feel for these people with the student loan debt, but man am I glad I never got a college degree. I did that on purpose because I thought, “What do I want to do that I need a degree for?” I couldn’t think of anything, so the time and money seemed like a big waste.

I was blessed to spend my teens being homeless and living in a very broken, and often dangerous, household. I mean that it was truly a blessing in the vein of, “Blessed are the poor in spirit..” and “Blessed are the poor for theirs is the Kingdom of God.”

I had no money for college, and at the time, everything was based on my parents’ income, which, because my mom had recently married a man who owned a business, meant that I couldn’t get much financial aid any way.

What I did have was the following:

– God. He actively led and blessed me through all the craziness.
– A realization that no human was going to do something for me so I better hustle.
– A family legacy, that, in spite all its intense brokenness, possessed the wisdom of entrepreneurship.

So, I started working as a 1099 salesman, selling Cutco knives. Through this I learned a host of skills far more valuable than what it seems most of my friends learned in college. Cutco knew this and would even present new trainees with the challenging thought: “Ok, you get your degree. Now what? How are you going to land a job? Did your degree teach you how to sell yourself in a job interview?” I would add, degrees generally also don’t teach kids how to hustle–how to “make things happen.” That was a mantra for young knife sales people. The mentality was about learning how to generate your own way when no clear, assured path to success was present. In general, the Cutco company culture was very centered around personal development.

A lot of Cutco reps have a bad experience because they panic once they find out they’re going to have to step out of their comfort zones. But every friend I have that spent even a summer doing it, still looks back on the skills they learned during that time as a massive boon for their personal development.

As far as the reps like me, who stuck around for a handful of years, most of us just barely made a living. Though it was more than our friends made just out of college, and some of us made a lot more than that. I can confidently say I know more reps than I can tally that have gone on to have very successful lives, from a worldly point of view.

For my part, I dropped out of undergrad. Initially because I didn’t have the money to pay for it out of pocket, but then at some point I realized I was competing for jobs with college grads in entry-level sales positions. I also realized I couldn’t name one professional goal at the time I’d need a degree for.

I moved on from selling knives. Started a flooring company and made six figures in my mid-twenties. After that, I felt led to give it all up to do meaningful Kingdom work. I invested in my neighborhood and ran the neighborhood farmers market. I then started and directed a community development nonprofit that constantly made front page regional news for the work it was doing. Somewhere in there I was a missionary to rural India for a season.

Now I’m married with our third kid on the way and I run a web design and development company. We pay the bills. My wife stays home. Most weeks the business only takes 30 hours of my time. We aren’t without our financial trials (we don’t own a home by choice; we don’t have health insurance for me), but our total debt is maybe about $4k in credit card debt and I have time for family and for the things of God.

Whatever blessing we have, the primary blessing is knowing God. The others come from Him. I believe one of the main tools he used to bring about these blessings is knife-selling. It was amazing how in even starting a non-profit, leading volunteers or raising event sponsorships, my Cutco skills served me.

I also have talked to a handful of successful people I know who had similar experiences with Amway. One friend I have did Amway for two years and only made $700/mo. When he couldn’t take it any more, he went and got a job selling cell phones at a mall kiosk. Because of the skills he learned at Amway, he was vice president of the company within six months, making $20k/month.

The reason I think these companies are good for people is because they have to have cultures centered around personal development. Otherwise nobody would succeed, given the nature of a self-starting line of work where you have to build your own book of business from scratch. It’s the opposite of the narrative we were fed about a college degree being a one-way ticket to success.

On that note, I strongly believe in education. I just reserve my support for accreditation on a case-by-case basis. When I was a homeless teen, I spent much of my free time, whatever time I had leftover from my two jobs, at the public library, learning. Not long after, I found a mentor who reads a book a day (and also didn’t go to college, even though he now teaches at a grad school) and spent years investing untold hours into reading and discussions.

I have thought a lot about this topic and am actively trying to dissuade many kids I know from going to college if it entails getting loans or if they’re just doing it to do it. I don’t think doing what I did would benefit everyone. It would benefit more people than most would think, but ultimately, there has to be myriad alternatives to college. For instance, apprenticeships have always struck me as extraordinarily valuable.

Because of that, I am investing in two young adults by teaching them how to code and also teaching them many of the lessons I learned selling knives all those years ago (time-blocking, goal-setting, character development, the art of listening, etc.). Lord willing, we are soon going to start hosting classes in our office on the latter topics and inviting young adults from our church to come, just to learn along side us. As for these two mentees, they are working for me, making multiple times more than they had previously. Lord willing, I plan to grow them to the level of senior developers.

#2 Comment By J May On July 13, 2018 @ 2:27 pm

On a side note, I once did the math comparing average college tuition to the rate of inflation, starting in the mid 80’s when the federal government started heavily handing out financial aid. Tuition has tripled inflation since that point. Colleges, which are primarily businesses on a fundamental level, have gobbled up that aid and benefitted heavily from this misguided narrative regarding the indispensable necessity of degrees.

#3 Comment By Gene On July 13, 2018 @ 2:45 pm

Some really bad stories here, but how much is the result solely of student loans and how much bad life choices, like summers abroad instead of getting work experience?

There’s always the military option. I got 4 years undergrad at a private Christian liberal arts college and a year at an Ivy League grad school with zero debt thanks to the GI Bill and the willingness to work while in college. There are public sector jobs also that will forgive student loan debt for a certain number of years of work at places like the VA or teaching at rural or inner city schools. Are these people aware of such programs?

#4 Comment By Anonymous On July 13, 2018 @ 2:59 pm

Gene, even if people were aware of the public-sector student-forgiveness program you cite, they would be fools to participate in it, since it’s entirely possible that the program will be cancelled after they start. Indeed, the Department of Education proposed ending the program last year.

#5 Comment By kgasmart On July 13, 2018 @ 3:06 pm

One of the chief ways that universities fail their students is the lack of career support for students in the arts and humanities. My wife and I both had the experience as students of going to events from the career services department aimed at liberal arts students and finding that, apart from the Peace Corps, they had few suggestions. Professors in my two majors all just wanted more PhD students. Meanwhile, there are plenty of very successful people with degrees in “how to think.” We just need to help college students with where to get their foot in the door.

Doing what? Seriously, in what line of work is there a significant demand for liberal arts majors?

I would ask those in this thread who have sought/got a “noble” degree – what was your plan for employment upon graduation? Did you think about what jobs your degree would qualify you for? Did you know how many openings there were in that field – in other words, whether there was a market for the skills you were acquiring?

The job market is what it is. There seems to be surprise, or even resentment, that it isn’t what we want it to be.

#6 Comment By kgasmart On July 13, 2018 @ 3:24 pm


Did you actually read what Rod wrote/quoted…these are people getting ‘useful’ degrees. It seems at times that you want a population of people with engineering degrees who can’t string even a basic set of ideas together, much less use any sort of critical thinking skills.

That’s not what I “want” but it isn’t about what I “want” – nor is it about what you “want.”

It’s about what the market values. It’s about the jobs that are out there, not the jobs we wish were out there.

It’s about the industries that are hiring, not the industries that are in decline.

Miller, whom Rod quotes, went $100k into debt to get a master’s in English literature. He’s the Arts Editor for the NY Times Style Magazine. He works in a declining industry.

His schooling cost him $50k per year. His parents told him “don’t worry about the money.”

Strike one, strike two, strike three.

We need “critical” thinking skills? Sure we do. But here’s the reality: You, and I, and my kids, and perhaps yours, will need to pay the rent, buy the groceries and on and on. Is a master’s degree in English literature really preparing anyone to do this?

Again, it’s not about the economy we wish we had, it’s about the economy we do have. All these lamentations that our economy isn’t accommodating enough for those who life a life of the mind – how, exactly, would you make it so? What, pray tell, do you propose to do so that kids graduating with a liberal arts degree and $80k in debt will be able to find a **good** job that pays enough to pay off that debt rapidly?

Alternately, we could try and lower the cost of college but that would require significant trimming of all the administrative bloat and the amenities that the schools use to attract students. We could make it more austere – but would the students we’re talking about, those interested in a liberal arts education, actually be interested in that, versus all the bells and whistles that cost so much?

Education itself is an industry. The system is games. Knowing this – one can game the system. One can use the system to acquire the skills that make you a viable employee in any number of ascendant or resilient industries.

Or, as noted several times on this thread, one need not go to college at all. Become a plumber or a welder; your collar may be blue but you’ll have far more green than most.

Let us, please, stop pining for a world that doesn’t exist and prepare ourselves and our children for the one that does.

#7 Comment By Noah172 On July 13, 2018 @ 3:53 pm

Nelson wrote:

But somewhere in the past 30 years or so they collectively decided to not even try, relying on funding cuts alone

Since you (apparently) did not read my comments in this thread (admittedly it’s a long thread), you have not noticed that I made a distinction between funding and spending. Universities’ spending has ballooned, even if their funding from state general revenues (taxes) has remained stagnant absolutely (and thus a smaller percentage of the now much larger university budgets). Screaming “states should raise taxes!” or “states should restore funding cuts!” does not address why universities are spending two, three, four, Lord knows how many times more (that’s after adjusting for inflation) to provide the same or lesser quality education than they did in the past.

IOW, why does the 2017-18 UT Austin budget (not tuition charged to the student) work out to ~$58k per student, whereas in 1984-85 it was ballpark 30k (adjusted for inflation)? Is the education UT is providing twice as good as it was 33 years ago? Shifting more of the burden off of tuition-payers and onto state taxpayers (which is what you are suggesting) does not deal with the real issue.

#8 Comment By James Kabala On July 13, 2018 @ 5:13 pm

I guess my comments sound a bit like a broken record, but I wonder where this term “noble degree” came from. I am not going to go back and dig through the 250 comments to dig for it, but as far as I can tell, the pro-vocational commenters coined it, but then they started putting in quotation marks as if the liberal arts majors themselves had coined it. Ginger and kgasmart both seem to be armed for a battle against a group of arrogant liberal arts majors who may exist somewhere in the world but have not been seen in this thread.

#9 Comment By Armchair Agrarian On July 13, 2018 @ 6:25 pm


I know plenty of people in business who bemoan the fact that young business and STEM majors cannot write, even a coherent email. Many don’t actually pursue liberal arts majors, but there is a substantial portion who do. T.S. Eliot was a banker and Wallace Stevens was an insurance salesman. I had classmates who went on to work for Sam Adams, Disney, various start-ups, a company that does development for various conservative and Catholic organizations, and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. One classmate from grad school in theology is a personal financial consultant (obviously had to pursue some additional training) and another works for the FBI (the federal government in general tends to love liberal arts majors). Another is an editor at an academic press.

Granted, most liberal arts majors (myself included) aren’t interested in working in the corporate world and would be more comfortable in academia, but the proliferation of PhDs and horrible job marking in tenure track academic positions makes that a truly poor choice unless you are very focused and very smart.

The point is, if you can get in on the ground floor, there is room for advancement if you prove yourself competent. My wife has a degree in ancient languages, did an internship in the archives of a pharmaceutical company, and is now making six figures. I started out on a college campus in student services, moved up the chain of command, and am now in non-profit administration helping to oversee a $10 million per year budget.

#10 Comment By Trevor Thomas On July 13, 2018 @ 8:58 pm

Some encouragement: Michelle and I have been married for 20+ years. For over 18 years we have lived completely debt free. This includes owning our home (and never having a mortgage), four children (ages now 16, 14, 12, and 9–and not cheap!), 3 automobiles (each current vehicle 10+ years old and over 150k miles). Our story is a bit lengthy. For more details you can read here: [2]

or watch here: [3]

or here: [4] (our story begins about 9 minutes in).

Additionally, we’ve lived all of our lives on an average to slightly above average American income (~$60k-100K annually). Ever since our first child (16+ years ago) Michelle has been a stay-at-home mom and a home-schooling mom.

Bottom line (that we learned from the late, great Larry Burkett): We make serious use of budgeting, and we we take seriously the principle of stewardship, i.e. God owns it all, and we are merely stewards of His property. We felt called to this path to show others that God’s Word is the truth and, in spite of the many temptations, it is possible to live debt free.

#11 Comment By dominic1955 On July 13, 2018 @ 9:05 pm

“Did you actually read what Rod wrote/quoted…these are people getting ‘useful’ degrees. It seems at times that you want a population of people with engineering degrees who can’t string even a basic set of ideas together, much less use any sort of critical thinking skills.”

You don’t get critical thinking skills from college, fool.

My old timer liberal philosophy professors were banging their heads against the chalk board listening to the beginnings of SJWism. Even though they wanted to impart those sorts of things, seems that only the conservatives and non-commited could get it. They saw the future, and didn’t like what they saw.

They are all gone now.

#12 Comment By ginger On July 13, 2018 @ 9:56 pm

“Ginger and kgasmart both seem to be armed for a battle against a group of arrogant liberal arts majors who may exist somewhere in the world but have not been seen in this thread.”

Not at all! Arrogant liberal arts majors have already started down the path. There is absolutely no point in doing battle. None whatsoever, particularly with the arrogant. Talk about an exercise in futility. No thanks.

But if my story helps some prospective students think twice about whether they can truly afford to study theology and philosophy for 4 years, plus raise a large family, perhaps I will have at least helped somebody make a truly informed decision.

WAY too old for battles here. Let people do whatever it is they are going to do.

#13 Comment By Nelson On July 13, 2018 @ 9:58 pm


IOW, why does the 2017-18 UT Austin budget (not tuition charged to the student) work out to ~$58k per student, whereas in 1984-85 it was ballpark 30k (adjusted for inflation)? Is the education UT is providing twice as good as it was 33 years ago? Shifting more of the burden off of tuition-payers and onto state taxpayers (which is what you are suggesting) does not deal with the real issue.

Did you even read what I said? I talked about how conservatives could contribute quite a lot by actually taking an interest in managing government institutions. I barely mention funding except to note that modern conservatives only cut funding and expect it to magically make things better instead of going through the effort of managing institutions to make them better. They totally abandoned good leadership. I noted also that liberals at least try to do the right thing but they’re not so good at managing (in general) as conservatives would be if conservatives cared enough to do it.

#14 Comment By ginger On July 13, 2018 @ 10:16 pm

James Kabala:

“Ginger: I think you just need to look at most of the other 200+ comments here to realize that disdain toward the holders of liberal arts degrees is at least as common, probably more so, than disdain in the other direction. I am not sure who here (or indeed anywhere) holds the straw position you attack so angrily”

Here’s the thing. I am not angry. Not anymore and not for a long, long time, anyway! I confess I WAS angry, in my late 20s, when we were living in low-income housing (and homeless for a summer!), the stress was incredibly high, my body was falling apart, and I was pregnant every year (quite a few miscarriages in there).

And at first I will admit was dumb enough to be angry at the school. But it didn’t take me long to grow up and realize I was really angry at myself for being dumb enough to buy the bill of goods I was sold and even dumber to have blamed the school, when what I needed to do was get off my arse and start to remedy the situation.

I thank God we were given the opportunities to actually do that.

And frankly, as I said in my original post, I am now in a place I can appreciate some aspects of my liberal arts degree. I can walk into a C-suite anywhere and hold my head high, knowing I am probably far more educated than anybody else in the room. I suppose some could call me an arrogant liberal arts major for that, and perhaps they would be right. But that confidence is definitely worth something in my current role.

I do not, however, believe it makes me a better person or a better Christian.

My story is just my story. If it means nothing to you, I totally get that. Why should you even care, honestly? But if it helps somebody make a more informed decision in their lives (yes, even if that decision is that yes, they CAN afford 4 yrs of studying Thomas and Aristotle!), then maybe all those years of busting humps, working nights, weekends, two and three jobs, etc., will be worth something other than just having gotten us to a much better place financially.

#15 Comment By wyclif On July 14, 2018 @ 1:15 am

davido, you wrote:

“Can you imagine starting life at 22 being some $100K in debt??? Universities are returning to the exclusive province of the wealthy, like it was in the first-half of the 20th century.”

That is not the province of the wealthy. The wealthy don’t need college loans.

It is the province of the serfs.

#16 Comment By Mike On July 14, 2018 @ 2:41 am

Forty years ago, our country considered education a national priority and helped a generation of young people walk through that door to a better life. Today we have different priorities. We’ve been at war continually since 1991 (the Iraq embargo was a war by UN definition.) We’ve spent some 5 or 6 trillion on Iraq and Afghanistan alone over the past 15 years. And we’ve allowed the costs of higher education, basic medical care, and housing to spiral out of control.

College is an expensive mess because our government no longer legislates in the interests of our citizenry. Don’t expect a federal solution — those in power just don’t care to help you.

#17 Comment By Elijah On July 14, 2018 @ 7:03 am

“You don’t get critical thinking skills from college, fool.”

No, you don’t. Someone better have started you down the path to getting those before college!

And I don’t think colleges really value critical thinking skills very much. In so many aspects of academia all that matters is expressing yourself through the ‘right’ lens of ideology.

A few of my friends are relatively high ranking civilian engineers at an army base: they constantly lament the number of advanced degree applicants they get for jobs who can’t even think through a problem on their own.

Fifteen years ago it was nigh impossible to find people for senior client-facing positions who could express themselves clearly or concisely on paper or in person. That’s not new.

#18 Comment By kgasmart On July 14, 2018 @ 7:32 am

@Armchair Agrarian:

The point is, if you can get in on the ground floor, there is room for advancement if you prove yourself competent. My wife has a degree in ancient languages, did an internship in the archives of a pharmaceutical company, and is now making six figures. I started out on a college campus in student services, moved up the chain of command, and am now in non-profit administration helping to oversee a $10 million per year budget.

Right. You got in on the ground floor and fought/excelled your way up.

Might you have had an easier time of it had you majored in something more pertinent to what you’re doing now, versus your liberal arts degree? You don’t say (at least in this comment) how much your education cost you/how much debt you graduated with, but I’d also ask: Would it have been possible to be exactly where you are now with less debt, had you gone to a state school rather than a private one?

My perceived hostility to a liberal arts education in this thread stems from a comment Matt in VA made in a previous thread:

Aren’t you the guy who said in another thread that you’re going to make sure your kid majors in “hospitality management” or something like that? Good Lord. Why don’t you just force him to wear a sign that says “I have not the slightest shred of intellectual curiosity and can provide no evidence of a rigorous mind — please credential me so I can move on.”

Matt apparently sees a practical education as something for chumps.

I see an education focusing on a “rigorous mind,” costing $50k or more per year and graduating with $70k, $80k, $90k or $100k in debt as something for chumps.

#19 Comment By Weldon On July 14, 2018 @ 9:02 am

Why not just admit what we’re doing and make it explicit: fund college with equity rather than debt. Your alma mater gets a 3% stake in all your future income.

#20 Comment By Brian On July 14, 2018 @ 9:08 am

Great discussion despite all the back and forth over the “value” of liberal arts degrees. From my vantage point in fly-over country, there are plenty of good paying jobs for competent indiduals, whether they have an english or engineering degree. Businesses are desperate enough to pay bonuses, strong salaries, and relocation for employees, yet the jobs remain unfilled because the area is not an urban mecca. It is hard for me to read these stories and not think of the potential opportunities for many to get out of their debt holes if more were open to living outside the urban centers that tend to use up and spit out the ever replenishing twenty something set.

#21 Comment By James Kabala On July 14, 2018 @ 10:42 am

Ginger: I think we have misunderstood each other, so I will let you have the last word (more or less – I guess this comment is the real last word) rather than prolonging the confusion.

#22 Comment By Clare Krishan On July 14, 2018 @ 12:57 pm

All high schoolers should be taught basic accounting: double entry book keeping. The sums in a debit columns match sums in a credit column. IOW, the funds for college tuition fees you go into debt for is going into the pension fund of the folks who provide you their instruction. You will not be let off the hook. A pension fund is legally-protected financial instrument just like a student loan. Unless you can find another counterparty willing to backstop the risk (ie fleece the US taxpayer via the Fed’s Pension Guarantee Corps) the transaction cannot be voided out. And the parental generation better get a grip, many of your pension funds are built on similarly unsustainable foundations… be careful what you pray for: when the bubble pops, any and all pension funds will lose another reliable financial instrument — collateralized college-debt bonds — that provide the long-term cash flow (interest + principle payments) you would have been relying on in your golden years. That’s the problem with an ex nihilo FIAT currency, when there’s no there there, you find out that there was never any there there to begin with. And don’t count on selling your home at its current valuation to finance the gap if you can’t find buyer able to buy it at that price. The banks will have to lower their already hairbrained mortgage underwriting rules (3% down, eligible as buyer premium — a ‘gift’ or bribe from seller) to satisfy the expectation of we boomers that millenials are going to replace us as homeowners. (psst don’t mention the mandatory HOA dues that can exceed car payments for poorly maintained infrastructure and uniform-planned property maintenance ie you can’t use that clever college degree to update or economize your DesRes: the covenanant restrictions bind you to any and all deferred maintenance costs of the prior generations of member-owners (ie a whopping multimillion collective home-equity loan for all HOA members, financed not under consumer lending rules but as a corporate loan with draconian penalties). When news of this looming disaster in residential real estate spreads to the younger generation, the bottom will fall out of market for many neighborhoods and whole new tracts of slums will develop… not a pretty picture but all built on $denominateddebt backed by the full faith and trust of… purchasers of US Treasury Notes. So long as foreigners want to buy our debt, we’ll get to keep ratcheting it up. But woe betide us, if we can’t keep generating a good enough return (why do you suppose the GOP is pro-immigration, someone has to pay the taxes when the home-grown are max’ed-out!)

#23 Comment By T. C. On July 14, 2018 @ 3:20 pm

I don’t understand why anyone needs to go to a $50k a year college, unless it’s on a full scholarship. And it makes me crazy that people still treat college like it’s a trade school. A university degree teaches you NOTHING about doing a job. It’s supposed to teach you how to think and how to be a citizen of the world. The EMPLOYER is supposed to train you for the job, but like everything else, the cost and responsibility has been pushed onto individuals.

Job-wise, all a college degree does is enable the recruiter (or more likely a computer program) to check off a requirements box that keeps you out of the “discard” pile. At best, it gets you to the top of the resume pile and possibly gets you an interview. Is that really worth $200k of tuition? Unless your salary is that much or more, I’d say not.

It took me 11 years to get my undergraduate degree. Job-wise, it taught me nothing useful. My work experience did that. The one thing it did do was qualify me for graduate school, which was free thanks to an assistantship. That changed everything for me and doubled my earning potential. But all of that was part of a 5-year effort to re-career into an in-demand, high-paying profession. Unless you know exactly what you want to do and know for a fact that the jobs will be there, there’s really no point in spending money you don’t have on an expensive degree. Start at community college and go to a state school. As my biology professor told us, “We use the same textbook as they do at Princeton.”

#24 Comment By T. C. On July 14, 2018 @ 3:34 pm

A little perspective for the liberal arts majors out there: My undergrad and graduate degrees are in English (concentration in Creative Writing) and I make over $80k a year in the private sector. But those degrees are coupled with high-level computer skills and many years of experience in the business world. So it can be done. You just need a well-researched, practical plan to make it happen. That’s the hard part.

#25 Comment By mrscracker On July 14, 2018 @ 6:17 pm

Trevor Thomas,
Thank you for mentioning Larry Burkett. I hadn’t thought about him in years.
Something important to practice-and something he would always talk about-is tithing.
And tithing isn’t just about income but our time and talents, too.

#26 Comment By Paolo Pagliaro On July 15, 2018 @ 6:31 am

I can’t understand how it’s even thinkable for University education to cost so much: in Italy, my country, I pay around 2000€/year for my elder son’s Electrical Engineer 5 years course (actually, half of that, given the scholarship he won).
This University is not in the top 10, but in that field (Electrical & Electronic Engineering) it’s #35 worldwide – not so bad. Of course, it’s a public University, so part of the cost is hidden, but… really 50k$/y?
Evidently, you are paying a system which has gone totally out of control. It’s grotesque, but reasonable, that the institution most entrenched in left-wing ideology is probably the one extracting more money from “the people”. Bureaucracy costs, sophisticated bureaucracy costs much more.

#27 Comment By JonF On July 15, 2018 @ 7:47 am

Re: That’s the problem with an ex nihilo FIAT currency,

All currency is fiat currency. Nothing descends to us from Heaven stamped with God’s seal of value. Whether paper, silver, seashells or wampum money has value only because we agree to pretend that it does.

#28 Comment By Chris – the other one On July 15, 2018 @ 9:15 am

A note on expensive colleges:

People don’t go to expensive colleges for the education. They go for a) the social status that comes with an Ivy League/elite SLAC/equivalent degree, b) the resources the school offers for projects outside of classroom work, and c) the connections. Mostly c.

No one goes to Harvard for the classroom education. Grade hyper-inflation and professors who want to minimize contact with students mean very little quality teaching happens there. It’s about making connections with wealthy and powerful alums who might hire you, scoring plum internships at top investment or law firms, and being able to put “Harvard” on your resume.

Saying “no college degree is worth $50K a year” is not exactly accurate when applied to the most elite institutions. You’re not paying $200K for the classroom instruction. You’re paying $200K as a down payment for being catapulted into the elite tiers of professional and public life.

#29 Comment By Gerald Arcuri On July 15, 2018 @ 11:18 am

Colleges and universitis have become bordellos of propaganda, the most effective piece of which is that they offer something which is even remotely worth its cost. This has been obvious for at least forty years. Engineering, science and math degrees are still valuable, but fewer than 20% of the undergrad degrees available are worth the paper they are printed on, either in terms of career payback or actual educational value. The pressure cooker which has been created by the college education scam – aided and abetted by the schools themselves – is headed only one way in this nanny society: debt “forgiveness”. The ONLY solution is to make colleges and universities put their financial futures at full risk to underwrite student loans. And end tenure.

#30 Comment By Elijah On July 16, 2018 @ 11:30 am

An interesting article that touches on the subject in North Carolina:


#31 Comment By Dawn Carusi On July 16, 2018 @ 6:25 pm

May I suggest the following book by Jeffery Silingo. The first half of the book is a research-driven explanation of how we arrived at this place with higher education.

#32 Comment By Brian On July 17, 2018 @ 11:25 am

Lots of comments here. I’ll add my +1 and my story: even if everything goes right, student loan debt is terrifying, and the lives of those with it and their colleagues without it are VERY different.

I went to an Ivy League law school, back at a time when that guaranteed a high paying job, which I got. When the recession hit, I was one of the lucky ones – I had jumped ship from a big law firm the year before everything collapsed, and was working at a smaller firm as a litigator whose business didn’t dry up just because the banks exploded. I had to take two paycuts, but I stayed employed. And life has continued to be good since then. I’m sixteen years into paying off my debt, and am left with “only” the public loans. The higher interest private loans are done, thank god.

But here’s the troubling part of the story. When I took out my loans, I borrowed for everything. Tuition, room and board, everything, since I had nothing. I naively assumed that everyone was more or less in the same boat.

At the end of law school, what I think were loan officers (I have no idea, in my memory they looked more like gestapo agents) gathered all of the students who had borrowed money into a room, and explained, in detail, the ruin that our lives would become should we fail to pay off our debts. I sat there and realized that out of a class of 400, there were maybe 100 people in the room. Few of my friends were there; most apparently had family money.

The result: when the recession hit, the effect on my friends who had student loan debt and those that didn’t were WILDLY different. The former disappeared from the industry, moved from NYC to Albany or Philly or wherever they could find a job and a cost of living so low that they could still make their loan payments. There weren’t any divorces, but there weren’t any marriages or kids either. My friends without debt rode out their unemployment in NYC, doing other stuff (low-paying jobs, getting MBAs, whatever) and are fantastically successful now.

I think there are lessons here. We now have two children and will hopefully soon have a third. My kids are NOT going into debt. No college is better than that. I escaped by the skin of my teeth, through absolute blind luck of finding a solid job before everything went to hell. I know way more people who were unlucky than who ended up like me.

#33 Comment By Ross On July 17, 2018 @ 2:11 pm

I have a similar story and reaction to Brian – I am a success story but still massively regret the loans I took out. I grew up middle class to poor depending on year, and my family lacked any ability to pay more than a token amount for my college education. I was guided by them, thankfully to chose a private college for undergrad because I had a near-full ride there. I did pretty well and applied to several law schools, as that seemed to be a safe and desirable career path. I got into one elite school, though non-Ivy league, and a good but lower tier (top 75) state school that offered me a partial scholarship. Knowing no lawyers, I asked my professors what I should do – pay $200k to go to the elite school or pay $25k to go to the state school. They all told me not to worry about the loans, that law school was an investment and I should clearly go to elite school. My parents bought into the same reasoning, believing that an elite law school degree was a guarantee of a comfortable life. Nevertheless, I did well at the elite school and was in the top of my class, with several job offers to pick from.

After numerous twists and turns, I am now a partner at a mid-sized firm and do well for myself. I am able to make my loan payments without difficulty and the final payoff of the loans is visible in the near future. Nevertheless, my loans and my wife’s loans have been our second-largest bill, equal to our mortgage payment, for 13 years. The loans (and my wife’s) have been a constant source of worry and a constant deterrent for me from choosing any other career path than pursuing the firm track. Our standard of living has certainly been a lot lower than if I had an extra $2000 a month after tax, and there are times especially early in my career where we skated precariously close to not being able to make the payments. But, again, I am blessed and am not hurting financially. On the whole, it has worked out for me.

The rub is, looking at the folks that work with me at my level, many of whom are grads of equivalent state schools, and knowing what I know now, I am confident that I could have been just as successful as a state school grad. Many of my elite school classmates have not been as fortunate, having washed out of biglaw during the great recession and never recovered (I narrowly avoided a similar fate). In effect, I blew $175k to have a fancier name on my resume. I’d much rather have that money in my 401k. And I am very aware that, but for a few fortuitous events in my career, I could be in a very bad situation where my loans would have pushed me over the edge. And I have friends who weren’t so lucky and are screwed by their loans.

TLDR: I didn’t comprehend the huge downside risk that large student loan debt came with, having been told by every mentor I trusted that the decision to take out massive loans to go to an elite school was a no-brainer. Even though it has worked out for me, I regret making that poor decision and would be better off now if I had not taken out the loans. Now I tell everyone that will listen not to take out large loans for their education.

#34 Comment By DannyPowell On March 12, 2019 @ 6:27 am

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