Christian life

Debt Free College? It Can Be Done!

money and graduation cap with "NO" sign“Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you” (2 Chronicles 14:11).

[I published the book Debt Free College—We Did It! in 2002. The article here was published in The Lookout magazine (March 7, 2004, Standard Publishing). So keep in mind the time references are from a 2004 perspective. Though stats have changed since then (they’re worse!), the principles are still true. I’m posting this to encourage you to say no to student loans.]

At the end of my son Cason’s first year of college in 1996, he phoned to say that the entire freshman class had gone “all weird.” Having just received notices to preregister for next year, they had collectively slumped into a depression. Why? The majority of students were in debt for their freshman year, their wallets were empty, and there was no money to pay for next year.

Cason was not depressed, though it had been a challenging year. His jeans were worn a little thinner than everybody else’s. He hadn’t gone out much—how could he without a car? But he had $200 in the bank. “I’m excited about next year!” he said. His friends—the ones who earlier felt sorry for him because he had to work—were now asking his financial advice.

I have followed the topic of student loans for 13 years [UPDATE: as of 2020, 29 years]. Nailing down the statistics is tricky. Student financial obligations can take the form of student loan debt, student credit card debt, and even college costs that students charge on their credit cards. In the fall of 2003, money expert Jean Chatzky reported that the average four-year college senior graduates with a $19,000 debt. And student debt continues to increase. In the summer of that year, the Miami Herald noted that “students are carrying credit cards in record numbers.” Actual average student debt hovers [NOTE: in 2004] around $20,000.

A $20,000 debt might not be staggering if college graduates stepped right into high-salaried dream jobs. But that’s not happening. Average annual income upon graduation is roughly the amount of the debt, which some experts say is only half the salary needed to comfortably manage repayment. Double the trouble when graduates marry. Millions of young adults owe billions of dollars on student loans.

We had no idea this alarming picture existed until our Karis started the college preparation process in 1990. We had been financially devastated a few years earlier and were only just climbing back up to zero. But we assumed other families—normal families—were managing. How shocked we were to learn that, for whatever reason, few families had funds for college. Loans were the answer for everyone.

But we said no.

Though we had no savings account and no other real assets, we made a determined decision to avoid parent loans. We had been through enough. We would help Karis as much as possible, but college would be her responsibility. We steered her (and the kid brothers) away from personal student loans. Eighteen-year-olds are not experienced enough to understand the implications of being in debt long-term, but we understood. We did not want our children set up for failure. We wanted them to be free.

And that’s how our journey began.

We had the same anxieties anyone would have: What if it takes them forever to graduate? What if the children, without any mad money, miss out on all the fun parts of college? What if… ?

But trusting the Lord to lead and provide brought amazing adventures. Our three kids and two nieces learned helpful money-management (and life!) skills. But that’s not all. Karis was elected homecoming queen—even without designer clothes; Cason backpacked through Europe; Clinton gave away big bucks and his account only increased; Arian spent two summers in mission work and still graduated in four years! Andrea was somewhat hesitant to start down this narrow, debt free trail few of her peers were choosing. But she saw the plan working for her cousins and sister, who were graduating confident, happy, and financially free.

How does it work? Don’t apply for any loans. Period. Forget financial aid. Think Lord of financial aid. (“Relax, because the Lord takes care of you”—Psalm 116:7, New Century Version.) It’s simple, but not easy. Get used to hearing, “Well, THAT won’t work!” The response? “I beg your pardon, but graduating from college destitute, depressed, and desperate is what won’t work.” You see, it’s OK to go to school part-time, have fewer clothes, work a year first, do without a car…whatever it takes (and however long it takes) to graduate debt free.

The lives of too many young adults have been reduced to paying back student loans for 10, 20, or 30 years. If they had it to do over, they would gladly trade their predicament in exchange for an extra year or two of school and going without a few things. Debt free college, with one hand in God’s hand, is better—and more fun.

We shouldn’t have to prove that. But we did.


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