Getting Stuck: Of SUVs and Unpaid Bills
Recently my family embarked to my cousin’s house a couple hours away. Getting there via paved roads means driving east into the town beyond them, fighting through downtown traffic, and then circling back west to their place at the edge of the woods. It annoys us to no end to take such a circuitous route when the miles driven exceed by a fair amount the miles a crow would fly to get there. So when my cousin discovered a more direct dirt road route two or three highway exits earlier we were excited to try it. He gave us the directions, which I ignored in the moment. No need to pull over to the shoulder and write it all down, after all. When I hit the appropriate exit I fired up the ol’ GPS which definitely seemed to have a good tack on which forest roads to take.
We then continued to simply follow the turn by turn instructions and shortly thereafter found ourselves in quite the jam. Our last turn off of the mountain required every ounce of our SUV’s capacity as we slowly picked and slid our way down a rocky, washed out hillside until we could go no further. Backing up merely meant spinning out and to go forward would slam us in a rut so deep and jutted I feared debilitating personal and vehicular damages. Night enveloped us, the kids panicked, and my wife had had enough. We gathered our luggage, walked the rest of the way down the rocky crags to dirt road intersection by flashlight, and called in a ride. After having read about the proverbial “death by GPS” I became its latest victim.
Eventually I got the rig back to town in one piece but not until after a lot of time spent clearing the way with hand tools, damage to my undercarriage, and several harrowing moments at the wheel careening around between rocks and hard places.
What does this have to do with college affordability? Plenty.
The most recent reports put the number of former students in college loan default at seven million. When one picks through the data on these defaults, as Clare McCann of The Hill has, one begins to see a very heavy and yet altogether preventable trend. The overwhelming majority of defaulters (over 60%) were students who left school prior to graduation. Of those defaulters who did graduate from a school program, 88% only earned a certificate of some fashion as opposed to an accredited degree.
By and large, those students who graduate with a degree do not default on their loans. In fact, only 3.5% of those in this data set who had either an associate or bachelor’s degree were in default.
The obvious implication is that the best way to afford college is to get a degree at the end of the process. Perhaps this seems intuitive. After all those who fail to do so have the expenses of college without the career-related fruits to show for it. I don’t think anyone enrolls in college initially and/or takes out student loans without the full intention of graduating and paying the bills. Nor do I think anyone setting out for a journey to a specific destination plans to get stuck on a hillside with a dismayed family in the backseat. But I think in both cases the causes are the same.
When we embark from point A toward point B we have two very basic options. We can 1) set out and make our decisions in the moment, turn by turn, or we can 2) gather some perspective and plot the course in advance. While approach #2 takes a little more effort up front it does prevent us from blindly stumbling into washouts, defaults, or somesuch. In particular, a student would be wise, before setting off to school and hoping their semester-by-semester choices lead to a degree, to contemplate and plot two or three items firstly.
- For one, step back and put college itself in context. Why do you need it? What do you expect it to accomplish for you in the scheme of things? What distinguishes, in your mind, a good experience from a bad one? Look beyond ages 18-22 and think about what college should bring into your later years. In the affordology context we refer to such thinking as considerations of rank.
- For two, it helps to map out your academic considerations. You have a fairly good idea what degree path you want to take or what other benefits you want to achieve. Now break this down into steps in advance, picking and choosing your classes from a current catalog to have an idea of what you need to take semester by semester to achieve the larger goal. A good chunk of the reason large numbers of students either flame out early or take six or more years to graduate (both very expensive propositions) is the unnecessary surprises when it is discovered that one has taken too many non-transferable classes, has taken to few classes to this point, or has taken the wrong sort of courses altogether.
- For three, try to get an advance look at your expenses in relation to your income. It’s altogether too easy to enroll in college, to start making payments or to take on loans, only to run out of funds before the destination has been reached. Take the time to sit down and plot how to align your various sources of payment with the timing of your needs. Yes, you got a $2500 national merit scholarship and your folks have $10,000 in your 529 plan. Do you want to spend the funds until they’re gone and see where that gets you or do you want to pick your way through your total experience, planning to spend $X at this point and $Y at this point? This we call an exercise of resources. On this website you will find two very basic worksheets to break down your resources by type and then by semester. Don’t set out for college until you are confident you have a viable plan to get all the way through graduation prior to getting the boot for non-payment.
Whatever the case, simply do what it takes to pull over to the side of the road, plot a course, and avoid the fate of the millions of students who find themselves in an untenable, unaffordable positions with college directly to blame.