The College Crisis and My Student Odyssey

Anyone who reads the news knows that on top of the Great Recession, there are ballooning costs of just about everything imaginable. This includes the price of a college education, which tends to be one of the few ways to make your way out of debt — or, as some point out, into it.

Recently, there have been two notable articles written on Yahoo! Finance, “Placing the Blame as Students are Buried in Debt” and “The Dangers of Paying for Your Kid’s College.” As a student caught up in the drama of student debt and ballooning college costs, allow me to illuminate some of the problems I’ve encountered over the years.

Colleges love students. They love to keep students. Unfortunately, there are often reasons students cannot continue their education at a particular institute. I stopped attending my first community college because I did not want to pay five grand a year to live on campus, nor the cost to commute the hour and fifteen minutes there. I lived at home with my parents and transferred to my local university in-city.

Then I became convinced that I could make it as a computer animator and moved out to a college where tuition alone was 18 grand a year. Warning bells should have gone off when I found out the school’s credits did not transfer, especially since I was young, naive, and knew I was prone to making decisions on a whim. But I went, I enjoyed, and for two quarters, prospered. Then I met my first ex, moved out of the student housing, and found out just how much it cost to live in Florida on a part-time Wal-Mart paycheck with a bum who didn’t work. I managed to still pass my classes with flying colors for another quarter before moving back home to save up to try again the next year.

Needless to say, I somehow managed to make several more mistakes involving finances, including trying to support two of my friends on top of my own financial woes. With 18 classes remaining (a year and a half worth of full-time classes, or 24 grand in tuition alone), I moved back home and went back to my local university. The bottom line of nontransferable credits? I only had two years of education to show for a whopping 42 grand of debt. That was as of 2008. So why am I still in school as of 2010, with a year remaining?

That’s where the college bureaucracy comes in. You see, in order to obtain a teaching certificate from this school, you must go through their program. In order to go through their program, you have to take concurrent classes at the same time, pass them all with a B or better, and still take your general educations courses, too. I had no problems with the B – my current GPA is a 3.6. I did, however, have trouble taking concurrent classes when they were not offered at the same time, or when they’re offered only at certain times of the year. So as of fall 08, I could not start the teacher education program at my local university until fall 09. So I waited and began taking just general education classes. I’d learned my lesson about dating and focus, too — I stayed out of the dating scene for a year and a half before even considering a date with my fiance.

After another series of unfortunate college bureaucracy issues in the fall and this past spring, however, I found myself once again with a full three years before I could obtain a teaching certificate. Incredibly frustrating, considering that the time I’d spent in school I could have obtained a Master’s degree and taught at the very school I was attending! And now I found out that I’m pregnant (surprise, surprise for the woman who was told she was barren).

So once again, I began seeking another school, hoping that I could find another route. I found it with American Public University Systems, which is both regionally and nationally accredited, meaning they accepted some of the credits I’d taken in Florida, along with the normal coursework I’d taken at the community college and the local university. With only a single year to obtain a BA in English, I transferred in. Hopefully this time next year, I will be telling you all about my intensive summer training to begin teaching in a public school.

So what does this all mean to you?

If you have kids, encourage them to get a job and set aside money for school. I’m talking enough to pay for tuition, fees, books, and room and board for at least a year. Start setting aside money for them, too, and explore your local community colleges first. They tend to be cheaper, the classes easier, and you can get the every-college-student-requirements courses out of the way first. College Algebra, English 1 and 2, that sort of thing. It also gives them a chance to think about what they’re going to do with their degree. Follow every conceivable avenue for free money – there’s a ton of it out there, believe it or not. Take advantage of the Pell Grant, and your state grants.

Start all this when they’re a JUNIOR in high school, or sooner.

If you are a student gearing up for college, please, please, please don’t make the same mistakes I did. Cherry-pick introductory courses if you don’t know what you want to do with a degree yet. Take the meteorology class, the anthropology, the studio art classes. Really study yourself, figure out what you’re good at. And if you know what you want to do, find the cheapest effective route. Community colleges are great because you leave with an associates degree, so even if you don’t finish that BA, you have something. Don’t let your relationships with others drive your decisions. Yeah, it’d be awesome to live with your boyfriend or even just your best friend, but if you don’t have the money to do it, don’t.

Government loans are there to supplement what you and your parents put into your education. Only take out what you need. Don’t try to live on loans, it never works and you’ll end up with a pile of debt you can’t hope to pay off. Private loans should only be a last resort. And DO NOT touch that credit card unless your life depends on it. Student debt, you can always get help on. Credit cards leech the life from you unless you only have about 20% of a balance and you pay it off every month. That’s called building credit. Maxing out all of your cards? Not so much.

So what if your parents are living paycheck to paycheck and they ask you to move out? Move into a two bedroom place with three other people and split the bills. Everyone needs to work and pull their fair share. Don’t use loans to pay for this stuff unless it’s absolutely necessary. A new pair of shoes every month is not a necessity. Neither is a new car that you pay on every month. Find an old car with good gas mileage and get in good with a decent mechanic. I’ve found that Geo Prizms from the early nineties are really good (about 28-36 mpg, easily repaired, low breakdown record). Being frugal now is what will allow you to have all those nice things later.



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