Upside-Down Math

Yesterday I watched a one-hour special on Fox News Channel called "Why Does College Cost So Much, and Is It Worth It?" It profiled a young woman who had spent $138,000 on a college degree from the University of Scranton. She had recently graduated with $80,000 in debt (an amount that could double over the life of the loan after interest payments are factored in) in order to become a special education teacher at a salary of $30,000. When asked if she had done the math before she made those choices, she was very frank in admitting that she hadn't. "I was very naive at that point in my life. I didn't understand what a dollar meant." She does now.

It's hard to expect a seventeen-year-old picking a college to grasp what that kind of debt means, or what kind of salary she'll need to be earning right after graduating to support it. The young woman above had two better choices: she could have attended a cheaper school so that she could support herself more easily on a special ed salary, or she could have spent those four years in college preparing herself for a better-paying job. She chose the third, and most difficult, option. Borrowing five or even six figures in order to become, say, a teacher or a social worker is a tough way to go.

Ideally, someone would be looking out for a seventeen-year-old high school senior who lacks the life experience to know any better. Her parents should have known better. Her high school guidance counselor (who had encouraged her to attend Scranton because it would be "a good fit") should have known better. And all those financial aid advisers and career counslors at the University of Scranton should have known better. She figured it out the hard way.

What about the University of Scranton? School officials declined to comment and sent Fox News to the American Council on Education (ACE) instead -- the umbrella organization of American colleges and college administrators. Expressing exasperation that the university had passed the buck to him, the ACE representative finally replied, "I would discourage anybody from borrowing that much money to go to college unless they had a very good indication that they'd be able to pay it back because they were going into a field that would be sufficiently renumerative to do it." While students themselves bear ultimate responsibility for the colleges they pick, the loans they take out, and the careers they choose, I would also point out that universities employ teams of financial aid advisers to help students make these decisions and ultimately have to sign off on every student loan. If these financial aid advisers are in fact just paper-pushers and on-campus reps for lending institutions, let's call them something else.

As painful as it is, picking a college (or grad school) based only on "fit" or nice architecture or that cool rock climbing wall or the fact that your friends are going or that it's the best school you could get into (as determined by the editors of some magazine) isn't the way to go about doing it. Price tags and financing decisions have to factor into that analysis. Any financial aid advisor, college counselor, or pre-professional adviser who doesn't force you to have that conversation and do the math is not doing her job. If you're not getting that advice from the people who are being paid to counsel you, head over to and spend some time with their great borrowing and income projection calculators. Better to do the analysis ahead of time than to find yourself trying to make ends meet later with upside-down math.