Uphill, In The Snow, Both Ways

Today’s Courier Herald Column:

At just after 4:30 this morning, I hit send on an email containing my final assignment of the school term. This concludes my first semester on my third trip through University level studies. While having to reinvent myself roughly five years ago, I made some deliberate and conscious decisions. One of them was to do more of the things I wanted to do with purpose. Life really is too short to do anything else.

While I had toyed with the idea of a PhD in economics for almost two decades, most of my “spare” time is spent in and around politics. After comparing programs and my schedule, I decided that Political Science best fit that general description I listed above. Thus, last August, I enrolled in the first Poli-Sci classes I’ve ever had.

Georgia State’s campus is a bit larger and more sprawling than when I last took a trip through in the nineties. In the middle is Woodruff Park which was “occupied” for much of this semester. I never made the time to mix and mingle in the park with those twenty somethings bemoaning the world’s cruel fate. As a full time student with a full time job who also writes a daily column and manages a political blog, I didn’t really have the time to hear how there’s just no opportunity any more. But if I had stopped by, I probably would have told the urban campers a story that went something like this:

I have two college degrees and am now working on a third, but I have never had a student loan. This is not because I was a trust fund kid; quite the contrary. I was the third of four children that left a middle class household over a 7 year span to enter college. All of us were expected to go to college, but we were also either expected to earn scholarships or understand that we were to work to pay for school. I did a bit of both.

During my first quarter at the University of Georgia, when most of my friends were attending the season opening basketball game, I took the student catalog, shredded it, and placed classes onto pages that represented the 12 quarters I planned to need to graduate. I had hoped to finish in 3 years. By a little luck and a lot of hard work, I managed to reduce that to 9 consecutive quarters – exactly 3 football seasons.

I did so while working as a co-op during three of those quarters and attending night school at the same time. I took correspondence courses while on campus. I figured out that 5 hours credit was available to co-op students, and then created a loophole to make it 10. Most importantly, I actually attended the classes for which I registered. I even took 7:55am classes. I attribute a full point of my GPA just for showing up to class and pretending to look interested. When I occasionally teach as an adjunct professor, I make sure to return that kindness to my students who do the same.

I found out about the co-op job by going to the College Career Placement office my first week on campus. I wanted to know who was hiring, what majors they wanted, and what other requirements the best employers were seeking. I graduated into the pre-gulf war recession of early 1990, but I was not declined a job offer from anyone I interviewed with. I had been working since I was 13, put myself through college in under 3 years, and graduated with honors. I will not in any way pretend I was not incredibly lucky to have every one of those opportunities. I will also insist that I did my part to make sure I was ready when that luck came to visit. In short, I understood that my entire reason for being an undergraduate was to build a resume. As someone who did not have independent wealth to fall back on, my job was to make myself employable.

Those who spent the fall bemoaning the Wall Street banks seemed to have the universal goal that all student loan debt should be forgiven. The concept that banks should be punished for the housing bubble while they themselves have participated in a student loan bubble appears lost on most. Yet debt for college is practically free, and many – too many – are borrowing money to support a lifestyle that their college activities are in no way preparing them to achieve.

Too many students will never ask themselves the question “how will I pay this loan back” when signing for these loans. Many just assume the “real world” will beat a path to their door, regardless of major, grades, or lack of work experience. Life doesn’t usually work this way, and more students need to be made aware of this fact on the front end of their college experience, not after leaving with six figures of debt.

As we look at reforming all entitlement programs, we must include student loans in the mix. There are a lot of valuable lessons that students need to learn during their college years. The cost of unamortizable loans should not be one of them. Students need more work study and less free credit. And, of course, the occasional uphill walk in the snow for good measure.


  1. John Konop says:

    ….The cost of unamortizable loans should not be one of them. Students need more work study and less free credit. And, of course, the occasional uphill walk in the snow for good measure……..

    Very good post Charlie! I would add, not only does this help off-set the cost of education, it gives the student real world experience for the resume, contacts for a future full-time job, and a snap shot into a future career opportunities as well pitfalls of different jobs.

  2. Engineer says:

    Tons of fees going to such things as rock climbing walls, dancing contests/step shows, gaming rooms, computer labs that you may never use, and the like. This is where a ton of your money goes towards in college.

    • Ed says:

      It is worth mentioning that the “tons of fees” amounts to a few hundred dollars per student annually, at least at GSU. IIRC, student activity fee increases go to a student vote. And I’d say those are part of the college experience–good, bad or neither.

      • Engineer says:

        Trust me, as a past student senator in college, I’m well aware of the student voting process. 9/10 the students are offered some recreational thing and don’t seem to realize that the money has to come from somewhere. While the fees vary from university to university, they are but a drop in the bucket to the money in your tuition wasted on things like “green-space initiatives”, beautification, high priced professors (at some larger universities like UGA, not so much at the smaller state universities and colleges like GSW, Georgia Southern & Fort Valley) and excessively large bureaucracies in the form of “administration” offices.

        I dunno, the whole experience in college has made me very skeptical in regards to how higher level education is run.

        • Ed says:

          I’m kind of curious how those things constitute “wasted” money. You only attract good professors with… high paychecks for one. If you went to Tech (your handle would suggest as much) I think you can understand why you’d need a large payday to go teach. College campuses are famous for their bucolic green spaces (TBH, I wish my school had some) so that explains that and the need for large administrations should be self evident.

          • Ed says:

            I guess what I’m trying to say is there is a decent critique to be made about that stuff, but your post just isn’t making it. Not being snarky.

          • Engineer says:

            Nah, like I’ve said in other posts, on PP, my handle refers to a video game character from the game Team Fortress 2(note the avatar picture). I do work with engineers sometimes, but I’m no engineer (Never enjoyed higher level math enough for that). Sorry if I confused you on that one.

            I’m not specifically calling out any particular professors, but I do feel that some of them are paid higher than deserved *cough*Language&Arts*cough*. On the other hand you have those same universities with the highest paid professors buying expensive top of the line equipment, software, and supplies for whatever hot topic is trending in academia so you kinda expect the higher priced biology(more-so regarding veterinarian and medical sciences)/engineering/physics/chemistry/geology professors to be working on that new stuff. To be honest, most of my complaint was for green-space (which are normally created by replacing parking lots with grassy lawns) and mega administration. Unfortunately, I’m a bit out of the loop to mention any current issues regarding administrations at the universities (I remember quite a few jokes from folks I know about a few secretaries that had secretaries at UGA, but I’m not sure that counts 😛 ), but I am aware of ongoing issues with this throughout the country.

            Before I continue, pardon my venting on this next paragraph. I happen to be in the crowd that absolutely hates these green space initiatives, especially ones that convert existing parking lots to open lawn. While parking at large universities like GA Tech, UGA, or even out of state places like UNC (Chapel Hill) has ever been that great, they seem to all want to force you to park 2 or 3 miles off campus. They are such a waste of time and money and just irritate the student body and bow down to the environmental crowd.

  3. drjay says:

    i managed to graduate from uga with no student loan debt, but i’m really not sure i could have gotten through dental school without loans…and at 2.85% i don’t really feel overwhelmed by it as i’m paying it off…

    • Charlie says:

      Goes back to cost/benefit. You probably had some idea of what the job market for dentists was before you signed up for medical school student loans, and what time period it would take to pay them back, while still affording some expectation of a reasonable lifestyle. It’s hard to say the same about most undergraduate liberal arts degrees.

  4. benevolus says:

    Perhaps it is my place to remind that the Occupy movement started as Occupy WALL STREET. It’s not too hard to figure out the basic thread drawing people to the movement- fat cat bankers have been ripping us off and getting away with it for too long.

    College tuition costs have doubled over the past 10 years and wages have risen.. oh wait, wages haven’t risen at all. So your advice to the current student generation is to jump into a 10% unemployment work force with no experience and try to compete for a likely minimum wage job (plus tips!) that won’t even come close to covering the cost? Charlie, your model doesn’t work anymore, and THAT is why those people are in the streets.

    Wall Street bankers scammed billions of dollars from us and most of them got away with it and are still getting away with it. Students have checking accounts too and their fees are rising so the bankers can continue to pay themselves giant bonuses. Someone has to say “enough is enough” and the Occupiers and students are trying to do that. Perhaps they could be more focused, or more articulate, or more organized, but for that to happen they would need corporate sponsorship and lawyers and PR firms. Is that really what we expect? People who are essentially saying “we are going broke” hiring lobbyists? I’m glad they are doing it. The rest of us who have a house or a job don’t have the courage to risk losing what little we have left.

    The other part of this I want to comment on is that many people don’t get to work their dream job. Someone has to pick up the trash, and repair the roof, and fix the sewer. For those people, and most of us, working is a means to an end. The job is not the American Dream. Many will never achieve it of course, but is it too much to hope for? Must we all work two jobs or work full time and go to school full time in order to be honorable and worthy? Can’t we do better?

    • “So your advice to the current student generation is to jump into a 10% unemployment work force with no experience and try to compete for a likely minimum wage job (plus tips!) that won’t even come close to covering the cost?”

      Personally, I’m tired of hearing about 10% unemployment. People need to quit waiting for jobs to be given to them. Take some initiative and create your own job. Buy a $50 used lawnmower and go door to door around a neighborhood offering to cut peoples’ grass. Call up banks that own properties who are governed by HOAs and offer to keep the grass cut so the bank doesn’t get cited / fined by the HOA and help increase the chances of the house actually selling. Don’t like cutting grass? Take a skill that you have and put it to work. (Note that if your only skill is playing video games, I don’t really have any ideas for you at the moment, though I can possibly think of some given long enough.)

      There are tons of ways to make money out there – don’t just sit on your behind and think that it’s some company’s responsibility to create a job for you.

    • Charlie says:

      Couple of things Benevolous,

      You note that college costs have doubled over ten years, yet miss the fact that I included in the article that student loans are as big of a bubble as the housing bubble was, and for the same reason. Guaranteed student loans are available to anyone who can sign on the dotted line, much like the home mortgages were in the last decade that caused the same effect on housing prices. Yet students aren’t asking for this spigot to be cut off. Quite the contrary. They want more and easier loans, yet simultaneously are asking for these loans to be forgiven.

      At some point, there must be a cost-benefit analysis for each individual who wants to attend college. For too many, this is never considered until after years of student debts have accumulated. I know of many students who remain in school, on borrowed money, just to avoid having to begin making payments on the current debt that they can’t afford.

      As for the comment “your model doesn’t work anymore”, I flat refuse to accept that. Many of the protesters were not from inner city neighborhoods where the twenty somethings did not have access to the kinds of opportunities I did. They are from affluent neighborhoods and many have private school backgrounds. They had access to many things I did not, but what they lack is any sense of a work ethic. Those jobs that you mention that are a means to an end? Any college kid can do those as a means to get at least some of their expense paid for while in college. This holds as true today as it did in 1987 when I first enrolled at UGA.

      • benevolus says:

        Well as long as we are hinging the argument on personal anecdotes:
        I went to Tech on a scholarship, but still tried to work to supplement the $100 a month the Air Force provided. I had no car and no credit, so I was taking the bus or hitching out to Fulton Industrial at night to work at UPS. The work interfered with my study and I flunked out. So, not everybody is as smart as you, or as able to juggle two or three lives at once. Comments like “Any college kid can do those” is too much of a one-size-fits-all solution, and doesn’t really even address the underlying issue anyway.

        If the big banks can get bailed out, why not student loans? I think it’s a rhetorical question, but it is supposed to highlight how out of whack the system is. We have to be receptive to controls over the banking industry or this will happen again and no one besides the 1% will be able to afford college under any circumstances. People here zip out comments disparaging the work ethic of students without even a parentheses to acknowledge the horrible work ethic of a few bankers that motivated those kids to hit the street in the first place.

  5. saltycracker says:

    An admirable, but very rare, responsible personal accounting.

    Easy, unqualified or unearned money has always been made available to different segments with various justifications.

    The culturally destructive issue is that the risk is increasingly being transferred from private parties/entities to the general public by legislation.

  6. Ramblinwreck says:

    Great post Charlie. I also paid my way through which meant I managed to pack 4 years of college into just short of 10 years because I could only go when I had the money and that was infrequent.

    “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly; it is dearness only that gives everything its value. ” – Thomas Paine

    When you’ve financed your entire future through college loans that add up to what you’d pay for a house to get a degree that may not be in demand it probably is depressing but the anger is misplaced. If they really want to see who is to blame they should look in a mirror.

    • Harry says:

      Not to say the younger generation has it easy today, but I worked 22 hours every weekend year-round loading freight in order to put myself through Tech in 4 2/3 years with not one dollar of debt. Then I enlisted in the army to avoid the draft and did my time in Germany – not Nam – and was paid a fortune of a hundred dollars per month. But, at least I didn’t screw up my life. Ron Paul!

      • saltycracker says:

        I worked in college too….no debt….houseboy for a sorority, meals only…& moving furniture….intended to be a scholar….declined into hedonism….it was wonderful…..

        Kids today better come out of college or voc school with a profession or trade…
        picking the low hanging fruit of student loans can be a quick lesson in indentured servitude….

  7. Charlie says:

    I appreciate the comments guys.

    Decided I wanted to get at least one semester under the belt before “going public” with the expansion of my program to ensure I never, ever have free time again. It’s worked fairly well. As such, you’ve seen me in the comments sections a lot less frequently and my replies to emails and phone calls are becoming less frequent as well. My day job has also managed to increase in intensity of work load, so my focus remains a bit disjointed.

    That said, I’m still enjoying most of it on most days. I’m looking forward to a bit of downtime over the next couple of weeks, and then will begin drinking from mulitple firehoses again shortly after New Years leftovers have vacated the fridge.

    • Calypso says:

      “That said, I’m still enjoying most of it on most days. I’m looking forward to a bit of downtime over the next couple of weeks, and then will begin drinking…again shortly…”

      Thought that would help you out a bit more than the way you wrote it 🙂

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