Sunday, August 28, 2016


Borrow or Work?

I know that back-to-school advice often falls on deaf ears, but I feel honor-bound to give it a shot.  I’ll outline a very common scenario, offer some thoughts, and ask my wise and worldly readers for theirs.


Ashley is a pretty good student.  She’s fresh out of a local high school, and still not sure what she wants to do.  She’s attending community college to explore, to “get her gen eds out of the way,” and, frankly, for lack of any better ideas.  She knows that a college degree will help her get a better job, and she has no interest in waiting tables for the rest of her life.

Her Mom is helping her, but not very much.  She has two younger sisters who also plan to go to college, so she can’t take too much from her Mom.  Dad is out of the picture.  She can scrape together some money towards school, but on her own, she’s thousands short.  She’s in that frustrating gray area where she’s too affluent for Pell, but not affluent enough to cover her own costs.

She has crunched some numbers and found that she has a choice.  She can work 30 or so hours a week at the restaurant and attend college part-time, or she can take out loans, work 10-15 hours a week, and attend full-time.

What should she do?


I tried to build a scenario that reflects a fairly representative real life.  Should Ashley avoid loans and attend part-time, or cut back her work hours, borrow, and attend full-time?

It comes down to weighing risks.  If she goes part-time and works a lot for pay, her odds of actually finishing her degree drop dramatically.  If she bites the bullet and goes full-time, the odds of finishing the degree are markedly higher.  

I’d recommend biting the bullet, taking out the loans, cutting back on work hours, and jumping into college with both feet.  Yes, there’s a risk, but the chances of a better life -- of life with the kind of job that a degree can help you get -- are much higher with this strategy.  

Part of that is because of a variation on the old saying that if you want something done, ask a busy person.  Students who immerse themselves in college get the hang of it faster.  They’re likelier to make connections, both personal and professional, which will help them get through.  

Part of it is because going full-time means finishing sooner, which means there’s less chance for life to get in the way.  If she finishes in two years instead of four, she has cut the odds of a catastrophic interruption in half.  Students often have complicated lives, and well-intended advice about hedging bets often results in half-baked efforts and eventual surrender.  College is hard enough when you’re actually focused on it; when your attention is divided, it’s that much harder.  When your attention is divided for years and years, it’s harder still.  Better to plow straight ahead.

I know the “jump in with both feet” strategy can be a difficult sell.  It’s a risk.  But it’s far likelier to end with both a degree and a higher-paying job than the “hedge your bets” strategy.  Our task as educators is to make sure that both students and parents know that.

Wise and wordly readers, what do you think?  Is this good advice for Ashley?

The key point for me is "still not sure what she wants to do". It makes no sense to incur debt for college without some goal in mind. An undifferentiated AA degree that is transfer ready, but doesn't prepare for any particular field of study or career choice is not all that valuable—not valuable enough to acquire debt for. Better to take an extra year or two to find something interesting enough to study, and reserve the debt for 4-year-college (if that is the eventual goal).

If the student had a clear goal in mind, then acquiring debt to achieve that goal might be justified.
I say jump in with both feet. It would be different if she were going to an expensive four-year school, but for the reasonable cost of a CC education, I think it's worth it to focus on her studies full time, and hopefully find a discipline that she wants to pursue in that process. If she still doesn't know what she wants to do, then she graduates with a two-year degree and has that on her resume (as opposed to no college at all), and can go for a bachelor's after some more work experience. If she figures it out after a semester or two, she has the option of either finishing the two-year degree and moving on or she can transfer earlier and take a few credits with her towards a bachelor's.

I'm not super concerned about her not being sure what she wants to do. After all, many many many students who enter college thinking they know what they want to do end up changing their minds.
You didn't say if she was living at home or whether she knows she can support herself right now on that job alone in her apartment. There is a real sense of a budget that comes with the latter situation. E.g. - How much phone can she really afford? And I am concerned that she doesn't have a clear reason for going to college. Do you want her to find out she doesn't like college after getting a year's worth of debt?

There is quite a difference between her and students I've had who work 40 hours per week to support a family and then take one or two night classes for years on end. And graduate, just not in 6 years for a BS. The latter are clearly motivated and have a plan. When they borrow money, if at all, it is the absolute minimum they need.

My recommendation is that she work close to full time (or that waitress job plus a part-time job) during the fall and start college in the spring. Save some money and get a sense of her budget -- both money and time. If she wants to get her feet wet, take one class (paying cash) and save the rest for the next semester. I see lots of students who drop out, work, then come back with more maturity and what seems like an older brain. They self report that they can now do things they never did or liked in high school. Even if it isn't an actual gap year, there is value in that life experience.

But I can also see value in starting full time with a light work load and paying attention to whether she could work more hours with that same class load in the spring semester. Most of the time, the answer is yes and that helps the budget balance. Either way, I would try to be as clear as possible that she should borrow the absolute minimum needed to get by, not the max that the college and FAFSA say she can borrow. That is the big mistake that students make.
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"She’s fresh out of a local high school, and still not sure what she wants to do. She’s attending community college to explore, to 'get her gen eds out of the way,' and, frankly, for lack of any better ideas. She knows that a college degree will help her get a better job, and she has no interest in waiting tables for the rest of her life."

I think gasstationwithoutpumps is right. If money is not a problem, it might make sense to use freshman year to figure out what you want to do. But if money is tight, that sounds like a waste of resources. Ashley should do whatever it takes to figure out what she wants to do with her life before she starts spending money on further studies.
You didn't say what her performance in college was or whether or not her parents went to college. The danger of drifting out of school for a poorly prepared kid with parents that did not go to college is high. A child with a well educated mom that's beating the drum for education that came out of a strong high school is in a completely different risk zone.

My experience was that a crummy job made school very exciting. I would take the waitressing job and take maybe one class. Save money and think about what you want to do and what your options are. After a year, reassess. She may be more motivated and focused when she has 6-12 months of footsore grinding work under her belt.
Ivory, your comment reminded me of a colleague who held a "crummy full time job" for years before going back to college at the very CC where she teaches now. I wasn't thinking of that when I wrote my comment, but it must have been in my subconscious.
I agree with CCPhysicist (and others). If she's not sure what she wants to do, racking up debt isn't the way to go.

So, either work full-time and study part-time, or take a gap year to build a small stake and investigate what different possibly-interesting careers are actually like.

(Being a year older will help quite a bit, too.)
I would define the problem as 'find the most efficient path to a direction about what to do for your career'.

This doesn't imply that the initial goal will be the final result, but a general direction is useful for I stilling a sense of purpose. In my advising, I found that it was possible for just about every 'Ashley' who came to see me to identify a broad direction or set of goals. Making the "final" choice was the problem. The first step was to disavow them of the notion that there were any final choices to be made. Most students can say what's on and off the table even if they haven't made any decisions.

Once she has a list of things she wants to do, it's a question of weighting those options. What are the top 3 or 5. With that, it's a question of what is the most efficient vehicle to elevate or rule out options.

Sometimes, you can get a sense of a job in school. Sometimes you are better off trying to find a job aligned with your investigation. Can you adjust the job to increase its utility in finding a direction? For someone interested in health careers, this can be trying to find low-skill work in a hospital and then using each day as a series of informational interviews and observations. Might pay less than the restaurant but it pays more than school!

Usually kids like Ashley have made far more career decisions than thy realize. It's our job to make them see that and show them how to crystallize towards taking a useful next step. (Note: I originally wrote "the right next step". But that falls into the trap of thinking there is a single right answer. The goal is to get the self-reflection and strategic exploration happening. There is no single right way, although finding to-do items that are common to most goals is useful.
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