In recent years, college has been seen as a necessary extension of learning after high school. Most guidance counselors in high schools, and certainly the ones where I went, emphasized the importance of getting a college education in order to secure a good job and a good future. No other options were discussed. Even our homework assignments in English class were to write admission essays for the colleges to which we were applying.

I consider myself lucky. I worked through high school and was able to save several thousand dollars towards my first year of college. However, it may have been wiser if my parents were the guardians of my savings. I learned during the financial aid process that all cash that a student has available is used to decrease their financial aid package directly. However, the cash (or other assets) that a student’s parents have only fractionally decreases their financial aid package.

Needless to say I didn’t get much aid my first year and had the honor of requesting a student loan for my first year. Although my aid did increase for the rest of my years at college (4 years in total – a traditional B.S. path), my student loans also increased dramatically. That’s simply because it’s hard to save up a lot of money just working one summer. At the end of my college education, I had a B.S. in Accounting, and $16,000 in debt (plus the back interest).

Accounting is one of the few majors in college that pretty much guarantees you’ll have a job after graduating. It’s been 5 years since I graduated, and I still know English and History majors who are looking for jobs that actually use their degrees. My loan didn’t require payments until 6 months after graduation. But I took advantage of that free time to pay off all the interest that was accruing (my college didn’t accept federal loans) and to even make a dent on the principle. I would suggest that students with interest free loans still take advantage of this 6-month grace period to make a serious dent on the principle before interest starts kicking in.

I had made a personal goal to pay off my student loan by the time I finished paying off my new car, which was financed for 5 years. Initially, I didn’t bother signing up for my 401(k) in my office and just threw all my extra free cash at my student loan. It helped that since I was still in college mode, I roomed with 2 other girls in a townhouse and shared rent and utilities. Many of my friends wanted a place of their own and a new car to put that big college graduate degree to work! Trust me that it’s better to be frugal while you’re used to it than to be paying off your loans over the maximum 15-year period. You’ll find that within a few years you’ll want that loan to be gone as you consider buying a house or having children.

Is all the time and effort and money worth getting a college degree? I think a better question is, does anyone really know what he or she wants to do for the rest of their life before having any practical experience in the field? It turns out that even though I did enjoy my accounting classes, this did not correlate well with enjoying accounting jobs.

I’m beginning to realize that my guidance counselors had it wrong. True, I do have a job that pays more than I would earn with just a high school degree, but I also had to give a lot of that extra earnings to pay off my loans. Not only that, but I was stuck in that job until I had my loans paid off, because I couldn’t afford to take a lower paying job. Now my prospects are, well, not so good. I can’t just start at an entry level position for a field I think I might like better, because companies won’t hire people that are over-educated for the position, even if it’s in a different field. No, instead the work force encourages you to go back to college, incur more debt, and hope that you get it right this time around.