By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
I have mixed feelings about President Biden’s decision last Wednesday to forgive some student loans.
On one hand, with student debt totaling $1.6 trillion (about $25,000 per person), it’s good that people making less than $125,000 a year will be given $10,000 worth of relief. Low-income borrowers who used Pell Grants will get up to $20,000 of forgiveness.
On the other hand, it’s not good that the move creates a $300 billion federal budget hole that taxpayers will have to fill. Moreover, people who struggled and paid off their loans feel cheated and a message has been sent that repaying them may not be necessary if you can hold out long enough.
Last, but certainly not least, this new debt relief is only a band-aid that does nothing to make education more affordable in the long run.
Facts of life: College is awfully expensive. According to the Education Data Initiative, the average annual tuition at public schools is $9,349 for in-state students and $27,023 for those who live out-of-state. Attending a private college will set you back $35,852 each year, and that’s low when some schools, such as my alma mater (Bard College) charge upwards of $80,000.
Education is a big business. Many institutions of higher learning are for-profit enterprises. They will raise prices and do what they must to remain profitable. So it’s no surprise that, adjusted for inflation, tuition has increased 747.8% since 1963.
At some point, students (and the rest of us as well) must learn to live realistically in America’s economic world. As it is, we have been thoroughly conditioned to buy now, pay later. Debt.org’s data shows that the average American adult is now $90,460 in the red, a record high, with most people unable to cover a few hundred dollars-worth of unexpected expenses.
Credit cards and loans are in our cultural DNA. They immediately give us what we want while they kick the pain-and-stress can over the hill and out of sight. Eventually, though, we reach that can. By then, thanks to interest and fees, it costs us a lot more than it would have if we had paid first and not punted.
As my wife Victoria Rolfe — who writes about frugal living and does family budget counseling — well knows, people look at you like you’re from Mars when you tell them they can live comfortably without depending on credit, loans and leases. But that requires thinking long-term and being patient and resourceful now so you don’t have to sweat later. Take the time to set things up right and you’ll free yourself from a lot of trouble down the road.
Victoria and I sent our four kids to the halls of higher academe, and all four emerged without debt. Here’s how:
My stepson Sean, our oldest, opted to move to North Carolina after high school, live with his biological father, and become a resident, which meant his tuition at state schools would be reasonable. His degree in Asian studies and biology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill was only $6,000 a year, which he paid off by working basic retail jobs and with some help from us. Winning a full scholarship in 2000 enabled him to eventually get a doctorate in psychology at the University of Buffalo for free. He went on to teach cognitive psychology at Buffalo’s satellite campus in Singapore, his rent paid by the school.
Colin, our next in line, went to our affordable local community college (Dutchess) for his first two years. There’s really no sense in overpaying for basic, required courses at a pricey school when the credits are transferable. Colin lived at home and saved substantially on dorm and meal costs. He eventually transferred to nearby SUNY-New Paltz in 2011 and earned a BA in English Literature, continuing to live at home while working in a supermarket and contributing to his tuition. We helped him, sure, but with amounts we could handle because we had set them aside in advance. He now works as an editor and book designer for Monkfish Publishing in Rhinebeck, NY.
Our daughter Amber followed essentially the same path in 2011: community college and then a reasonably priced state school: SUNY-Oneonta, where she completed a degree in fashion merchandising. Needing a dorm cost more, but Amber worked at an Old Navy and contributed. We helped. No loans needed. She now works as a hair stylist.
Jesse, our youngest, saved our bacon by winning a full four-year ride at Ithaca College in 2013, eventually earning a degree in cinematography and photography that he used to secure work in film production. But if he hadn’t gotten that scholarship, I’m sure we would have found a way to get him a degree without going into debt.
I understand that not everyone has family or friends who can help them, and education can be an immediate necessity. But students can save themselves a lot of agony by pursuing degrees that are practical and in-demand, and realizing that while some colleges can help you enter your chosen field — I definitely needed a master’s degree from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism because my creative writing BA from Bard was a ticket to starvation — it often doesn't matter where you went to school when it comes time to apply for a job.
It would also help if America’s education system transformed itself so that going to college is not seen as the ultimate goal for all. Practical trade skills such as plumbing, electric, and auto repair, and hands-on experience via internships, should be given greater emphasis. Quite often, we end up in a field that is different than the one we planned to enter when we went to college, and much of our most valuable learning occurs on the job while we make contacts who help further our career. No loans required.
Biden can try to bail us out all he wants, but it’s only going to be a temporary fix — “fix” as in a shot of heroin for an addict. We really don’t have to live on a mountain of debt, whether it comes from school or life in general. It’s a matter of choice more often than we realize. Ultimately, change is up to each of us, especially when it comes to education.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.