December 15, 2016
The flip side of that question is “Does your college debt make you less attractive to date or marry?” Many want to believe the most important ingredient to a happy and fulfilled marriage is love, because true love can overcome the normal struggles endured by marriages over their lifetimes. These same people would also like to believe that college debt should be immaterial to the decision with whom you spend the rest of your life—after all, the right person is the right person, no matter what the circumstances. I would propose that love is a choice—a choice to fall in love with someone with whom you can create a successful life. If this holds true, I would wager that most successful people are not necessarily looking for partners with money but for spouses who make sound financial decisions. Why? Because fiscal literacy and responsible financial stewardship are extremely helpful in developing a solid marriage foundation from which to move forward in individual life calling and marriage purpose.
Overwhelming college debt can sap energy and joy, as well as interfere with life calling, because significant resources are funneled to pay off those loans—making it feel like one is dragging around a ball and chain for ten years. Not even personal bankruptcy can dissolve this financial burden—a lifetime sentence until it is repaid. I am neither advocating for or against pursuing a college degree, and these words come from a chemical engineer with an MBA, who will also receive her second masters in life coaching in 2017. I believe a college education can open more doors for career and job choices as well as develop new worldviews, critical thinking, discipline, commitment, friendships, and a sense of community. However, I am recommending that before taking on any debt that everyone understand what they are called to do, how post-secondary education will support that purpose, and then using sound judgment to determine the best path forward. Approaches can include community college, part-time vs. full-time, scholarships, employer incentives, military benefits, etc. You may ask how did I pay for my education? I focused on good grades, worked when not studying, saved, sacrificed, applied for scholarships and loans, and was rewarded with grants and reasonable loans to pair with my savings the first time. The second time I worked full-time while going for my graduate degree part-time, taking advantage of my employer’s partial tuition reimbursement benefit in conjunction with my savings. The third time around I worked and saved for my full tuition, hence my return to college at 53 years old.
Mentoring and coaching high schoolers and young adults, I often see them struggle with evaluating and deciding how to afford a college education. Surprisingly, many of these students are encouraged by their parents to apply and attend universities above their collective financial means. The parents and students alike are swept up in the hype that a college education is the gateway to a successful life—the more prestigious the school, the better, and whatever debt is required to achieve that dream is worth it. With this momentum and the euphoria of acceptance letters, it becomes difficult to bring good judgment and reasonable thought in deciding whether to pursue a degree, what degree, its timing, and how to pay for it.
The sad reality—burdensome college debt has stalled many young degreed graduates who cannot turn back time. They are drowning in debt that cannot be expunged. Consumer Reports (2016) issued a report on the impact on student debt, and the survey statistics are sobering:
- 45% of respondents said their student loan debt was not worth the cost of college
- 47% said if they had the chance to do it all over again they would accept less financial aid and go to a less expensive school
- 50% are having problems making student loan payments
With half of recent graduates wishing for a do-over or struggling with debt repayment, these statistics should be a wake-up call that the current approach in securing a diploma is broken. What are the impacts to graduates overburdened with college debt? Consumer Reports (2016) found:
- 44% cut back on daily living expenses
- 37% delayed saving for retirement or other financial goals
- 28% delayed buying a house
- 12% delayed marriage
- 14% changed careers because of student debt
In many cases, these necessary life adjustments resulted from not understanding the impact of long-debt. Although not specifically addressed in the survey, many young graduates reluctantly return home after college to live with their parents, resulting in a “failure to launch” not by personal choice. Although subsidized room and board allow these graduates to pay off college debt, they struggle with financial independence and attracting financially independent mates. Consumer Reports (2016) revealed that 44% of respondents wanted to know how much student debt a dating partner had before beginning a serious relationship with 36% and 20% of respondents saying “no” or “unsure”, respectively.
With these statistics as a wake-up call, the next question most students should ask is “How much college debt can I afford?” The general rule of thumb is a graduate can afford college debt equivalent to the first year of salary. For example, if you are pursuing a teaching degree and expect to be paid $50,000 per year as a teacher, you can commit to $50,000 of student debt. A post-graduation balanced budget should be drafted to confirm you can re-pay this debt while ensuring you can put a roof over your head, food in your mouth, clothing on your back, and the means of getting to your job to earn that income.
When I coach students and parents on personal finances, this simple matrix translates the amount of student debt into a monthly payment for 10 years at various interest levels. Some students are financing teaching degrees at prestigious 4-year universities, taking on over $100,000 of debt for a job which will only pay $50,000 per year. When asked “How will you put a roof over your head if you have to pay $1,000 a month towards school loans?” their facial expressions reflect confusion, surprise, and worry. What I find more troublesome are students who are financing college under an “undecided” major. These students usually take upwards of 5 to 7 years to graduate—incurring more debt than if they would have paused after high school, worked, figured out what degree fit their life plan, and then pursued their education over 4 years. Powell (2016) reported that the average college graduate debt is $37,000 in 2016. Many of the entry-level, non-science based jobs for these graduates do not pay that amount per year. Many graduates have no idea when their loans will be paid off.
If you think colleges are educating you on prudent decision-making and the harsh realities of debt repayment, they are not. Universities are businesses, trying to make enough money to keep their doors open. If they sign you up, the colleges will receive income through your financial aid and tuition payments. They are not incentivized to explain what debt you can and cannot afford. By default, they are operating on the concept of Caveat Emptor, translated Let the Buyer Beware!
Pursuing a college degree can be one of life’s most significant and costly decisions, because the debt you take on can have a lasting impact on your quality of life. The debt you carry can also impact your ability to attract a life partner. Many students never stop to consider all the long-term ramifications of debt choices. I encourage you to pause, think through this decision, reach out for help, and make wise choices! Your future depends on it!
Consumer Reports National Research Center (2016). College Financing Survey: 2016 Nationally Representative Online Survey. Retrieved from: http://www.consumerreports.org/student-loan-debt-crisis/degrees-of-debt-and-regret/
Powell, F. (2016). Ten Student Loan Facts College Grads Need to Know. U.S. News. Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/paying-for-college/slideshows/10-student-loan-facts-college-grads-need-to-know
About the Author: Sandra Dillon is a business, life, and marital coach with an extensive background in business development and leadership. She coaches others in how to develop and execute life plans, develop successful businesses, and build better relationships by identifying and living their personal values, enhancing skills and competencies, and being held accountable for executing their defined goals.