Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Investing in Yourself

9. Investing in Yourself

Put bluntly, this is about student loans. Some people are fortunate enough to make it through college and graduate school without ever needing to take out any loans. Others stubbornly refuse to “sign their lives away” and choose instead to work long hours at outside jobs to earn the money they need to get through school. The majority, however, take advantage of the various government-sponsored student loan programs at some point in their education.
As an undergraduate, I was relatively lucky and didn’t need to borrow much money. Between parental support and grants from my college most of my expenses got covered. I lived frugally, but I didn’t take any part time jobs. I needed to focus all the time and effort I could on my schoolwork. Repaying those debts still proved to be a problem.
The president of my college once told a story about his own undergraduate experiences with borrowed money. He had applied for some sort of scholarship and had been called into the president’s office to find out if he had received it. The President asked, “If you don’t get this scholarship, would you and your family be willing to borrow the money you’ll need to go to this school?”
Downhearted, the student replied, “Yes. We’ve talked about that possibility and we think it’s worth it.”
“Good,” the President replied. “As it happens, we are awarding you the scholarship but, personally, I hate the idea of investing in people who are unwilling to invest in themselves.”
That student went on to be a Rhodes scholar, a PhD historian, and the President of his alma mater. “Investing in yourself” stuck with me as being a good idea.
By the time I had been accepted into graduate school I was not just investing in myself I was also investing in a pregnant wife and a two year-old daughter. For three years I gladly signed up for all the loan money I could get. Even with my wife’s income, money from the sale of my pots, and occasional familial support, we needed the loan money for everything from tuition and daycare to diapers, rent, and car payments.
Every graduate school is different in the support it provides its students. At some, between tuition waivers, scholarships, grants, and assistantships, the financial burden on the student can be quite light. Others offer little or no support at all, or vary the level of support dramatically from year to year. For me, only the loans could be relied upon.
The problem, of course, is not with taking out the loans and using them to sustain your education. The problem lies in paying back the money after you’ve earned your degree or given up on your degree.
A former college roommate of mine emerged from law school with so high a debt load that he had to refuse his first two job offers. Given his anticipated monthly loan payments the salaries being offered would have left him in poverty, barely able to pay for food and rent. As the weeks passed his stress levels steadily rose until he was finally forced to accept a job in Texas doing corporate law for oil companies. His years there were a purgatory made necessary by the student loan repayments.
My own loan totals were not as great but my repayment amounts still amounted to as much as a typical new car payment. If I had been hired as a ceramics teacher straight out of graduate school my payments would have hurt a little but been tolerable. But that didn’t happen.
Instead, I returned to my hometown and went into business as a self-employed potter. This wasn’t so much a plan of mine as half a plan. Like many graduate students in their final year I had over-focused on the “Requirements for Degree Completion” and not nearly enough on the “Practical Considerations for Life after School.” I had bought a used wheel from a professor. I needed to have done much more.
Choosing to be a self-employed artist can be a heroic decision, but the people calling about delinquent loan payments didn’t care about my heroic choices. They just wanted the money. For all I knew, some of them had accepted their lousy jobs as telephone bill collectors in a heroic effort to repay their own school loans. They were unsympathetic.
When you invest in yourself through the use of student loans it is imperative that you do so fully and with a hard-eyed view of the complete process. You may have to work at more than one job for a while. You may have to set aside money over the semesters to be able to purchase the equipment you’ll need for your postgraduate self-employment. You may have to move to Texas, or get better grades, or work harder than other people to get hired. You will have to think past graduation.
When you take student loans you have moved the finish line further away from the starting blocks. You can no longer afford to think of the race as being won when you earn your degree. Even being hired in your chosen profession will not be enough. You can not say you have succeeded until you’ve paid off the loans.

No comments: