For the second time in my life, I graduated from college in May. Unlike the first time, I managed to obtain my degree in physics education without taking out a student loan.

The statistics show that I am clearly the exception, rather than the rule. In the words of Dave Ramsey, famed radio talk show host who speaks on financial matters, I am a weird person. Sixty five percent of graduating seniors had student loan debt, and the average student has $35,000 in student loans.

Ramsey consistently interviews people who have taken out $100,000, $150,000, $250,000 in student loans. One guy had $1 million in student loans. It’s mind-boggling. It’s likely that these people will be making wallet-crunching student loan payments for the rest of their lives.

Ramsey is out to reverse the trend. He believes that, by getting good grades in high school, applying for scholarships during high school, choosing an affordable college, selecting a major that can be used after college, working during college, and living like a college student, a debt-free degree can be realized.

I think of my own experience — the first time around. When I was a junior in high school, I had developed assumptions regarding college: you had to go to a “famous” college to get the best education, technical schools and community colleges were second-rate, and living at home was loserville.

I attended the University of Minnesota, which, while not as expensive as private schools, was still significantly more than state schools or community college. It also was in the middle of Minneapolis, which meant the cost of living was significantly more than, say, Fergus Falls.

But I was attracted to the fact that it was a Big Ten school, and the football and basketball teams were on television. The campus looked like something from a movie set. It was a “famous” college in a big city, away from my parents. I also was accepted into the engineering program, and felt really proud of that fact.

As it turned out, the actual education, particularly for college freshmen and sophomores, was in stark contrast to the image.

You are on your own at large universities. No one will notice if you don’t attend classes. No one is telling you when to study, or what to study. Most of my classes had 300 students in them, and a couple topped 1,000. You are graded based on a couple midterms and a final. I was simply not mature enough to handle it, particularly in the difficult major I was in, electrical engineering.

On the other hand, a friend of mine also went into electrical engineering. However, he spent his first two years at the community college. He went on to get his electrical engineering degree from North Dakota State University. He’s now working as an electrical engineer.

No one who looks at his resume thinks any less of him because he spent his first two years at a community college. All they see is a degree from NDSU.

As the former editor and publisher who had hired countless reporters, I can attest that the college a reporter candidate attended meant virtually nothing. What I was really looking for was that they had earned a degree in journalism, and, just as importantly, they could show me published stories — whether it was in the school newspaper, their hometown paper or at an internship — and the quality of those stories.

In other words, a student who attended M State Fergus Falls and Minnesota State University Moorhead and had written good stories for the school newspaper was a better candidate than a student who attended St. Thomas University and had nothing published.

The cost of four years of tuition at the community college and state school: $29,000. The cost of a degree at St. Thomas: $163,520.

Similarly, the degree I received to teach science would be that same $29,000 through the state schools. Education majors I met who attended Concordia paid that same $160,000. 

By the way, the average starting salary of a reporter is about $30,000 per year, a teacher about $40,000. Going into extreme debt to attend a private college to get a journalism or teaching degree is ludicrous. 

As my daughter approaches the age where she will have to make these decisions, I have vowed I’m going to let her make her own decision. But I hope I can at least get her the right information and the benefit of my experiences.

Had I stuck with my electrical engineering degree at the University of Minnesota, it may have been worthwhile to spend my first two years there. The fact that I changed majors and transferred means I spent a lot more money on college than I needed to. 

I guess I had a really cool on-campus experience. Then again, that was two years of my 50-year life. Was the slightly better experience worth the cost? Likely not.

If we as a society are going to solve the student loan crisis, then we’ll have to debunk the assumption that the colleges with the best buildings and football stadiums are truly worth a lifetime of debt.

 

Joel Myhre is a Fergus Falls resident and columnist.

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