In HBO’s new series, Silicon Valley, quirky billionaire Peter Gregory (played by the late Christopher Evan Welch) tries to convince college students to drop out of school with a promise of $100,000 to pursue their own ideas. The show is a comedy, but Gregory’s message is painfully close to reality. College students are graduating in greater numbers than ever, with higher debt than ever and with fewer job options than ever. They are going to college seeking the American Dream and are instead graduating into an economic mess.
College is a given for the wealthy in America but, for the poor and working class, obtaining a college education is a struggle. There was a time when college was worth the sacrifice because it was a ticket out of poverty; it meant being able to get a better job and live a better life. Going to college became one of the great pillars of the American Dream and, for working class families, it was a symbol of success and achievement. Generations of parents worked hard and sacrificed in order to see their children have that better life.
Yes, college is still worth the sacrifice; it’s just that nowadays, it takes a lot more sacrificing. Decades ago, politicians began to see college education as a means to get votes among the working class. In campaign after campaign they promised tuition assistance, grants and low-cost loans – popular items that helped seduce votes from parents who wanted better futures for their children. Before then, banks had never viewed college education as a cash cow because the rich didn’t need to borrow to send their kids to school. But, as the ranks of poor and working class students swelled over the years, the banking industry began to see opportunities. Using well-funded lobbyists, the banking industry pushed Congress for reductions in government funding and increases in private, government-backed student loans. For the banks, it was a win-win scenario; they made money on interest and were exposed to little risk. The lobbying didn’t stop there however. During the 1980’s and 1990’s the banking industry pressured Congress to pass legislation preventing student loans from being discharged in personal bankruptcies.
The banking industry however, is not alone in this student loan shakedown. Colleges themselves are complicit too. During the last 40 years, the message that college is required for success has been steadily hammered into the American consciousness while, during that same time, the average cost of college tuition has risen by 1,120% according to Bloomberg News. CNN Money says that the average college graduate today is about $30,000 in debt. The impact of this enormous debt will have far-reaching consequences as graduates begin their adult lives and careers. Even with the better job that a college degree may deliver, most graduates will find it financially daunting to get married, buy a home, buy cars, have children, and save for retirement which, ironically, are many of the key attributes associated with achieving the American Dream.
Additionally, the U.S. birthrate has been declining for decades and, with so much student loan debt, millions of graduates are expected to put off starting families for years while they struggle to pay bills; a trend that will have a devastating impact on the Social Security system since fewer and fewer people will be paying into it.
Winning the lottery aside, the only financial relief for many graduates may come from inheriting their parents’ estates when they depart. But, not so fast; banks have set their sights on these too. In recent years, the banking industry has ramped up one of its newer money-making schemes: “reverse mortgages.” A reverse mortgage allows retirees to borrow the equity out of their homes and use it to pay bills. In exchange, the bank owns the home when they die. Yes, the banks are now offering to lend your parents their own equity so, when they are gone, their home won’t go to the kids, it will have already been signed over to the bank.
So what is a student to do in this depressing and bleak landscape? If you’re determined to go to college and pursue the American Dream, here’s a few real-world tips that may help you avoid the student loan swindle:
- Choose a school that gives the most education bang for the buck. Yes, big name schools can be more fun, but if your goal is to have fun, go to Disney World. If you want an education, pick a school that will provide you with an education that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. In many areas of study, your local community college can deliver the same education as a big box school at half the price! And, if you’re worried about prestige, don’t be. Most employers want legit degrees but seldom care what school they are from.
- Consider a regionally accredited online school. They’re not for everyone and require extra discipline however, if you have the discipline to do it, attending online is far more flexible and will allow you the time to work and earn money to help keep student loans at a minimum.
- Live at home if possible. Avoiding the cost of housing will help keep your borrowing down.
- Work. Get some kind of job and put as much money toward your tuition as you can. Every dollar you pay up front will probably save you two dollars or more in student loan payments later. Plus, the experience you get from working a job will be invaluable no matter what your career field is.
- Pick a major that is employable. You can be idealistic and major in “aboriginal interpretations of celestial bodies,” but that may not get you hired at most companies. Choose a major that will get you in the door at the biggest number of companies and chase your ideals as a minor – or better still – as a post graduate once you’re already employed.
- Avoid other debt. Banks are not your friends! Throw those credit card offers in the trash and don’t make any major purchases – like a car. You are already making a major purchase – college!
- Look for scholarships and grants – but don’t be afraid to beg also! Ask friends and relatives, but be creative too. Go to Wal-Mart and buy 12 cheap 8” x 10” picture frames. Insert your picture with a strip across the bottom that reads “This establishment is proudly helping –your name here- with college tuition.” Now, go around to all the mom and pop businesses in your area and ask if they will gift $100 to help you pay for school. You’ll be surprised at how many may agree. Give them your portrait and let them display it where customers can see it. If they are suspicious, have them make the check payable directly to the school. Businesses love supporting good causes – especially when they get promotional value out of it. It’s a win-win! Stay in touch with them as your education continues. Show them your grades. They are likely to make an additional gift each year if you keep them up-to-date on your success.