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.