The Restless Project: Were Your Student Loans Worth It?

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I once wrote a story about a man who, crushed under student loan debt, said he wished he’d gone to prison rather than college.

“[College] was the biggest mistake of my life,” Hernan Castillo told me. “At least I would have learned a trade or two [in prison] and started being independent once I got out.”*

Listen to the radio or watch TV long enough, and you’ll hear claims that going to college has a massive positive impact on lifetime earnings. That claim is not incorrect, but it’s A) incomplete and B) based on past performance that does not predict future outcomes.

Today, student loan debt is a bigger problem than credit card debt. Think about that for a moment. There’s more total debt for a (supposedly) four-year experience from our youth than entire lives of credit card spending. Some compare the student loan bubble to the housing bubble, though that’s a very inexact comparison.

More to the point: Monthly student loan payments of $500, $700, even $1,000, are crushing the dreams of many young people. Financial commitments made by kids who are barely old enough to vote (or not!) have gravely altered the direction of a generation.

One-third live at home into their 30s now. They aren’t buying houses, they aren’t buying couches, they aren’t getting married, and they certainly aren’t saving for retirement. It’s a big mess that impacts everyone, even older folks who went to college decades ago, when it was nearly free.

It should be no surprise, then, that many young people regret their college choices.

A recent survey by American Consumer Credit Counseling makes this point. The admittedly nonscientific poll conducted of users at ConsumerCredit.com found that 17 percent of those who wish they’d done something different “would have avoided college altogether” given their level of student debt.

Fully 57 percent said they didn’t understand the repayment process before taking out the loan. Some 19 percent would have attended a different school, and 25 percent would have pursued a different major if they knew then what they know now.

That’s why they’re restless

Student loans, even more than unaffordable housing, contribute to the perpetual nauseous feeling so many Americans experience, which I continue to describe in The Restless Project.

I don’t recommend skipping college. I definitely don’t recommend prison over college. I do think skipping a year to understand its real value is a smart idea.

And I think brand-name colleges need to be taken down a peg. They fool people just like brand-name handbags. You can get just as good a college education from a local community college as an Ivy League school. It’s the teachers that matter, not the logo on the sweatshirt. Universities are known for their graduate school programs, not their History 101 classes anyway. So save the money on college and invest in your graduate degree, if you must.

And I’ll ask: Were your student loans worth it? Was your college experience worth it? What would you do differently? You can reach me at Bob at BobSullivan.net.

*This story was published on MSNBC.com under the Red Tape Chronicles. Sadly, like most of my Red Tape posts, the original has disappeared, but the story is posted in numerous other places.

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