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The “Deeper Dive” Costs of College Debt

Unintended Consequences?

[By Rick Kahler MSFS CFP]  [Dr. David Marcinko MBA]

Not only is a college education a door to higher wages, but providing that education is an important segment of our economy and a huge source of good paying jobs.

In 2017 the average salary for the country’s 624,822 full-time college instructors was $82,240, according to an annual study from the Department of Education’s National Center of Education Statistics.

The old days

In the days before college loans were as easy to get as the common cold, college costs were due in cash. Students and parents had to save money or pay tuition out of their earnings. Many students worked their way through college. Those without savings, the ability or desire for college jobs, or high enough grades for scholarships didn’t go to college.

Since colleges competed for students, market forces controlled the tuition rates. Raising tuition too much resulted in fewer students and smaller revenues. The two forces of supply (college capacity) and demand (the ability to pay tuition) kept college costs in check.

Understandably, borrowing to pay for college tuition was difficult. What sane bank or investor would loan money to an unemployed teenager with no collateral to speak of? If you could find someone willing to make such a risky loan, the interest rate was high.


Well-intended politicians decided it wasn’t fair that those without the means to pay tuition were denied college educations. Their solution was to require taxpayers to underwrite college loans, sometimes at interest rates lower than those available to the most creditworthy.

With tuition money easy to obtain through low-cost, government backed loans, demand for a college education increased. With the increased demand came higher tuition costs. This easy money is the primary reason that college tuition costs have far outpaced inflation and have gone up twice as fast as medical costs since 1985.




Unfortunately, one consequence of loaning money to those deemed poor risks is that a high percentage of those borrowers are unable to repay the debt.  It should come as no surprise that 10.7% of all student loans are currently 90 days or more in default. Conversely, the composite default rate on mortgages, credit cards, and auto loans is 0.82% as of October 2018.

Today, taxpayers are on the hook for over 92% of the $1.5 trillion in outstanding student loans made to over 44 million borrowers, according to a June 13, 2018, Forbes article by Zack Friedman, “Student Loan Debt Statistics in 2018.” Only home mortgages exceed student loan debt.

And the appetite for loans continues to rise. The average student from the Class of 2016 graduated with over $37,000 of college debt. It isn’t uncommon for a medical student to amass over $200,000 of student loan debt. This year we will add another $120 billion in college debt to the books.

The more college debt that graduates take into the workplace, the less they have to spend for vehicles, rent, and consumer goods. The damage to the credit ratings of the 10.7% who are in default will also hinder their purchasing power for years to come.



If taxpayers ever decide to quit footing the bill, my hunch is that many colleges’ tuition rates will fall as hard as housing prices did in Florida, Arizona, and California in 2009. Lower tuition costs would create a financial hardship for most colleges and the some 4,000,000 people employed in higher education.

Politically, I don’t expect that to happen. Colleges are big business with a lot of money and influence in Congress. Further, a college education is becoming viewed as a right that should be free. In the meantime, savvy students will do whatever they can to minimize their college tuition and graduate debt-free.




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4 Responses

  1. No College Debt?

    Here’s a strategy to give yourself a strong start toward career success: graduate from college with little or no debt. This may be harder than it used to be, but with planning and commitment it can still be done. You might consider these possibilities:

    1. Shop for college like any other large purchase. Not every school offers the same quality of education; nor does paying more ensure better quality. Collegecalc.org lists the best value colleges in America by academic quality per dollar for 2019. Leading thelist is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a quality rating of 95 out of 100 and a cost of $10,936 per year.

    2. Compare your field’s average starting salary with the total cost of education. While graduating from MIT might sound impressive, the average four-year cost of about $200,000 doesn’t guarantee any better paying job than graduating from the South Dakota Schoolof Mines & Technology at an average four-year cost of about $82,000. MIT students received average salary offers of $70,300 in 2015 according to Business Insider, while SDSM&T students received $61,346 in 2016.

    Viewing this another way, the difference in total cost between MIT and SDSM&T is about $118,000. For that you get an extra $9,000 a year in earnings. However, if you apply all of the extra earnings to amortizing the extra $118,000 cost at 5%, it will take youover 20 years to break even. That is not a good deal.

    3. Work before and during college and save money for college expenses. Every little bit helps, and research from Berkeley finds that kids who work themselves through college do better academically.

    4. Get good grades and apply for as many scholarships as possible. For example, a South Dakota Opportunity Scholarship pays $6,500 over four years. Qualifying is relatively easy, requiring a GPA of 3.00 or better, or ACT composite scores of 24 or higher.

    5. Talk about college funding with your parents. Too many families don’t have these important conversations. One child assumed her parents would pay all her college costs, only to painfully discover a month before the first tuition installment was due theywere paying nothing. Another assumed he was on his own, worked his way through college, and then learned his parents would have paid all his tuition had he asked them.

    6. Consider asking both parents and grandparents to contribute to a 529 college saving plan in lieu of other gifts. (Ideally, of course, do this when you’re nine months old.)

    7. Consider the importance to you of the traditional college experience, including dorm living, extra-curricular activities, and even finishing in four years. It may be worthwhile to take lighter class loads, work more hours, and graduate in five or six yearsbut without debt. Investing extra time instead of taking on a burden of debt could make financial sense.

    8. Before you borrow anything, ask specific questions about repayment schedules and amounts. Consider whether you could afford these payments on the starting salaries in your field. A beginning elementary teacher and a novice engineer may have very differentbudgets.

    9. If you take a year off after high school to work and save for college, have a specific, family-supported plan to make the most of your earnings. For example, you might live rent-free at home with clear agreements about sharing chores and saving perhaps 80%of your pay.

    Graduating with little or no college debt is admittedly a challenge. Yet making the effort to earn a debt-free degree is an investment in yourself that will pay valuable benefits for a lifetime.

    Rick Kahler MSFS CFP


  2. Federal student loans

    A new White House proposal backed by Ivanka Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to limit certain federal student loans has sparked a debate on how the federal government should address the growing crisis of student loan debt.




  3. Elizabeth Warren on Student Debt

    It’s time to end the ‘failed experiment’ that caused the student debt crisis and cancel borrowers’ debt.


    Ann Miller RN MHA


  4. Endowments

    College endowments and foundations saw declines of 13.8% last quarter.

    Schools are under pressure as they face losses in their investment portfolios, as well as lost revenue from room and board refunds, canceled on-campus summer programs and potentially less tuition if classes aren’t held in person in the fall.



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