When a student misses one of the college courses that I teach, I like to make a joke about the price of attending my class. I remind them that they do pay to receive instruction, so they have to show up to get the most out of their investment. The term ‘investment' seems to turn on a light, because many students borrow money to fund their educations. They're very aware of the financial burden they're taking on.
“What are you borrowing all that money for?” I ask them.
Together, we brainstorm answers. I always ask for a personal definition. I ask my students to think beyond tuition and fees. I won't let them talk about the price of textbooks. I want to know: When you look back over your college education, what are you going to see? What are your student loans buying?
In my own life, I've asked myself this question a lot. I've unpacked this particular bag a number of times. I left graduate school with $48,000 in student loan debt. I spent a lot of time thinking, “What does a $48,000 education look like?” Of course, that's not an accurate number. I received a few scholarships as an undergraduate. I received a full fellowship as a graduate student, but took out loans anyway. I spent years paying only interest on my student loans. I've paid more than $48,000 for my education. But, I keep the focus on the amount of student loans I've had to pay off, long after the thrill of college is gone. When I think about my $48,000 education, I think of the answers that I offer my students. I make a list of everything my student loans bought.
Using Student Loans To Buy A Credential
A lot of students come through my classes who believe that college is the only path to success. The careers they've chosen require certain credentials just to get a foot in an entry-level door. That's true in some cases.
With just my undergraduate degree in Writing & Women's History, I wasn't qualified to do anything specific. I had research and writing skills, which qualified me for a whole lot of office jobs. After a year of working in a personnel office, I knew I needed to be more calculating in career goals. I took the advice of my favorite professors and decided to get a Master of Fine Arts degree.
While attending my MFA program, I realized that the two career paths available were teaching and arts administration. I could support my creative writing with either of those two full-time occupations. A few fellow students went on to earn masters degrees in library science. The consensus was you could not make a living as a full-time writer. Or, if you could, the MFA wasn't going to matter much. You were earning a credential, but it really only took you so far, and only in a couple of careers.
Without my graduate degree, I wouldn't be able to teach at the college level. I could not have found my job, or qualified for it, without my graduate credential. Several careers require such credentials: doctors, lawyers, certified public accounts, teachers at almost every grade level. The $48,000 in student loans certainly paid for the credential that made my dream job possible.
With that credential came something else altogether: a certain way that I see myself. I pursued an MFA because I wanted to be an artist. When I go too long without working on my creative writing, I look at my degree, framed and hanging on my wall, and I remember that I spent three years immersed in my subject matter. I remember that I am an artist. Sure, I could believe that without the piece of paper. But I have it, so I use it. I did pay $48,000 for it.
Using Student Loans To Buy The Time of Your Life
College is a gateway to adulthood, but you're not fully engaged in all the adult responsibilities. You'll form your first adult friendships. It's with these friends that you'll create stories that you'll tell for years to come. Usually, these stories include trips taken, embarrassing moments, brave actions, and bonding experiences – all the stuff that moves you through the teenager-to-adult transition.
I made my closest friends in my last year of college. When I graduated, I went to Greece with one of those friends. Years later, I made a massive cross-country trip with a different college friend. My graduate school friends and I still talk about one particular party we threw. Preparing for that party, with those people, created a sense of contentment that has never been replicated. The $48,000 in student loans certainly funded the good times I had during college and graduate school. It funded the memories I made with those good people.
Using Student Loans To Buy Networking Opportunities
You'll meet new friends, fellow students, club presidents, influential faculty and administrators, serve in student organizations, join formal and informal campus communities, and meet professors who will possibly write recommendations for you. The number of networking opportunities rarely gets larger outside of your college experience.
I met students who would go on to write and publish their own work, and students who would become editors. We share the privilege of being alumni from the same institution – and that creates a connection. It's an instant network. I made friends with whom I've started writing groups, and a friend with whom I've co-hosted writing retreats. My network brought me business, which has helped to pay those student loans.
Without college, I would not know those friends. Our paths would not have crossed. I always think that $48,000 was a fair price to pay for access to the network I now have.
Using Student Loans To Buy A Mentor
Any one of the people you meet in college can become a mentor who can help shape the course of your career. I may never have become a college professor myself if I hadn't met the PhD candidate who taught the Creative Nonfiction workshop in my last year of undergraduate study. We were both from Appalachia, and she was the first person from that area who was actually doing work that I aspired to do. Even in my final year of college, I still didn't fully believe that I could be a writer. She took me under her wing, and offered guidance and advice when I asked for it. She encouraged me to go to graduate school, and even wrote a letter of recommendation for my application. Without her support, I might never have believed I could publish or teach. Her friendship alone was worth the price of tuition.
Once, when I was still an undergraduate, she sent me to sub for her. I will never forget the pride I felt in being asked to do so, in being trusted by someone I admired. That was my first time standing in front of a classroom. Without that experience, I may never have become a professor.
Through the years, I've had to write essays about my teaching style. I realize how much of my teaching style is very much like my mentor's. I definitely adopted the elements that made the biggest impact on my own learning. I use those in my classroom now. I aim to be a mentor to students, because I know how much it meant to me. My $48,000 in student loans paid to make that relationship possible.
Using Student Loans To Buy Access to Experts
In a sense, you're paying for curated reading lists from subject matter experts. When I put together course materials for my own classes, I think, “Would students be able to find this article or book on their own?” Well, sure, they could. It might take them fifteen years of library and Internet searches, though. That's about how long it took me to assemble the various readings, place them in just the right order, and articulate the thread that sews them all together. It took me that long to design the course, after all the years of studying the subject.
I learned to develop such courses from the experts to which I had access. I watched my professors. I studied their syllabi. I've reflected on their teaching styles. I had several years devoted to learning how to know what I know and how to do what I do.
I still sometimes Google professors I remember well and look at the courses they're teaching now. I swoon over their syllabi and reading lists when I happen upon them. If they've written something new, I buy it. I miss having such easy access to the people who have devoted their lives to pursuing their particular subjects. I paid $48,000 in student loans to have that access.
Using Student Loans To Learn How to Learn
The big argument for pursuing liberal arts degrees and taking general education courses is that by doing so, you will learn how to learn.
I teach popular culture and humanities courses – the kinds of classes that a lot of people might think are impractical, indulgent, or a waste of precious time. I can always defend these courses by explaining that they exist as a different point of entry for understanding how you learn and how you make sense of the world. Undergraduate students are typically already interested in popular culture, so using that as a lens to examine larger issues seems like a win-win. Writing about humanities can easily become a transferable skill. If you can write about one difficult subject, you can write about another.
If you learn anything during your time in school, it should be to learn how to learn. It's hard to put a price on such a capability. At $48,000 in student loans, I think it's a steal.
Plenty of students have more than $48,000 in student loan debt. Plenty of students have less. The idea is to think about what you're really buying. An education is a lot of things, and tuition these days is a lot of dollars. Be sure you know what your student loans are paying for. If you feel like you're not getting your money's worth, then revisit this list. Network more. Add a second major for an additional credential. Find a mentor. Make a memory.
Make it worth every penny.
What did you use your student loans to buy?