How I Avoided Soul-Crushing College Debt

I screwed around in high school. 

All it takes is a look at my report cards.  If there was one consistent piece of feedback that teachers gave, it was this: “Is not working to potential.”  I found some old report cards recently and was embarrassed by the dismal remarks from my teachers. 

Part of my poor performance was due to the number of classes I missed.  The final half of my senior year, I had Electronics 3 before lunch and Economics afterwards.  I took the various electronics courses to hang out with my friend, Steve and kept getting in way over my head with the content.  Economics, on the other hand, was a course I wanted to learn because I saw myself in the business world.  Lunch time, however, was for drinking beer and smoking cigarettes in a mutual friend’s VW van.  It quickly became a group hang out and the place to party.

There were a lot of skipped Electronics classes so we could start the party early or avoided Econ classes so we could keep going late.    

I had ten missed classes one semester in Electronics and nineteen in Economics.  When I did show up to Econ, I often wasn’t sober.  One afternoon, the prettiest girl in school leaned over and asked, “Are you drunk?”  I tried to get her to notice me all year and when she finally did it was because I was liquored up.  Well, my hopes for a John Hughes movie moment (think Some Kind of Wonderful) evaporated right then and there. 

My parents were solidly middle-class with no savings for my college education.  There were no sports scholarships on the horizon as I hadn’t played high school sports, instead preferring to work at Albertson’s so I could earn money to pay for my car and beer.

I knew my options for college were limited.  I could either work full time, take out student loans or I could run away from home.

The third option was my best choice.

Uncle Sam Wanted Me!

I enlisted in the U.S. Army.  At that time, they were offering the G.I. Bill and the Army College Fund.  The total package was $25,000.  I had to serve four years and, when I was done, the U.S. government would give me money for school.

It was the best decision I could have made for many reasons.

First, I served my country.

Above all else, I hold that in esteem.  I may not have appreciated it when I was nineteen years-old, but I do now.  I’m glad I did it.

Second, I got to see the world.

The first part of my service I landed in Ft. Lewis, Washington.  As part of my enlistment, I got to choose my first duty station for one year and I picked Washington.  What a ding-dong!  I could have picked anywhere and I picked the opposite side of my home state.

However, Uncle Sam didn’t mess around with me.  He transferred me shortly after the one year anniversary to West Germany (the wall fell while I was there).  Besides Germany, I visited the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium, Brussels and more.  I was able to visit all of those countries with a home base in West Germany and a monthly paycheck courtesy of Uncle Sam.

West Germany - The circa-1989 version of me.  Check out the super cool mustache.  We were putting on protective gear and I was at the point where I had to just stand and look cool. 

West Germany - The circa-1989 version of me.  Check out the super cool mustache.  We were putting on protective gear and I was at the point where I had to just stand and look cool. 

Third, it gave me time to grow up.

By the time, I went to college I was twenty-two years old.  My first day on campus, I seemed like the old guy.  It’s a funny memory, that eighteen year-olds looked at me oddly for being in the same freshman math class with them, but that’s the perception of age.  To me now, eighteen and twenty-two are only separated by a legal drinking definition.  Back then, the age gap seemed huge.

The U.S. government held true to its word and sent me monthly checks of roughly $800 while I was enrolled (I didn’t get a check if I didn’t attend during the summer).  That may not seem like a lot, but those checks took a lot of pressure off.  Heck, an extra $800/month today, twenty-six years later, would still be a welcomed sight!

I also worked during my college years.  First, I was a data entry specialist for a couple years at the college.  My job was to input the information of incoming veteran students to ensure they were getting their benefits.

When I moved to a four-year college, I found employment at RadioShack as an assistant manager.  It was great sales training and I’m glad I stuck it out through those years.

College was serious business for me.  I traded four years of my life banking that G.I. Bill, so I wasn’t about to waste a single day.  I busted my butt in school, knocked it out in three and a half years and graduated with a bachelor’s degree. 

Also, I didn’t attend a single party during my college days.  All my partying had been done while I was in the Army (which was awesome, by the way).  There isn’t an ounce of regret for not attending a college party.  In my opinion, my Army experiences were better than any frat party could ever be. 

During college, I gave up drinking until after graduation.  When I first returned home from the Army, I drank a little more than I should with my old high school friends, happy to be reconnecting.  Afraid that it would affect my school performance, though, I promised myself that I wouldn’t have another beer until after I received my degree.  Almost four years went by before I drank again. 

I was a radically different student than the one in high school.

Okay, so, What’s the Lesson?

Is my message to go into the military and earn the G.I. Bill?

No, not really, although I am a big fan of it.  There are many benefits to serving in the military.  When I entered college, I had $25,000 towards my tuition courtesy of the military.  Most people could save $25,000 over four years if they were diligent.  That’s $520.83/month (without interest factored in).  Now, I fully admit I didn’t save actual dollars.  The Army incentivized me to serve and I took it.  I traded some personal freedoms to the military for that period, but they rewarded me and I’m forever grateful.

The most valuable thing I received was time.

The biggest advantage that I received by joining the Army was the time it allowed me to grow up.

At twenty-two years-old I was still trying to figure out who I was and where I was going in life.  However, I was far better prepared for college than the eighteen year-old version of myself.

Some may argue that if kids don't attend college immediately after high school they may never go.  Can we stop trying to convince legal-aged adults (18 year-olds are adults, by the way) that they must attend college to be successful in life?  That piece of paper that says you graduated doesn't guarantee success nor a pleasant retirement at the end of your working days.

Formal education will make you a living; self-education will make you a fortune.  - Jim Rohn

For those folks who say they didn't go to college because they didn't start after high school and then never had the opportunity to go back, it's time to be honest.  There is always time, but not desire, and that is okay.  College isn't for everyone and we should quit pretending that it has to be.  

Wouldn't it be better for a person to wait a couple years to determine if they truly have a hunger for education rather than immediately showing up for four years to grab a degree along with a heap of student loan debt?

It’s my belief that we push our kids into college too young.  There should be a “cooling off” period before they go into higher education.  Hell, they’ve been stuck in school for twelve-years while under their parent's roof and watchful eyes for that whole time.

Some kids can handle the transition to college and do great.  That’s fantastic.  I’m happy for them.  However, too many kids either leave college with a degree they don’t really want and will never use or they fail out of early and carry around that stigma for years.

Let's not forget the student debt that some of them will get if they weren’t lucky enough to have rich parents or some sort of forethought to work for a scholarship.   Many of these students will carry this debt with them into their forties, maybe even longer.  

I believe our young people should get out of their parent's house and work for a couple years before going to college.  That can be in the military, the local grocery store or a retail store.  Who cares?  Just let them out of the house.  If they don’t want out, then nudge them out, much like birds do.  They can’t fly if they’re huddled in the nest.

Our kids go to school to start a career path they have no idea they want to explore.  In college, their heads are full of wild dreams based upon media and stories from other friends they had in high school.  That changes when they go to work and realize life is different than the movies and social media.

They need some real-world experience.  They need to struggle a bit before they go get a higher education.  They need to fall, get scrapes and bruises.  They will learn how to get back up and move forward.  Life needs to kick them in the shins.

When they realize they want more out of their life, they will turn to college with a different set of motivations.  They’ll excel because they want to, not because they are expected to by their parents or society.

Will it be hard?  Sure.  Nothing easy is ever gratifying, though.  Let's stop trying to make everything so damn easy.  There is no reward in being handed anything.

Perhaps our kids would appreciate their education more after some growing up and saving money prior to attending school.  They may actually get something out of college besides learning how to correctly shotgun a beer.


What do you think?
Should kids go to college immediately after high school
or should there be a "cooling off" period?