January doesn’t just mark the start of a new year. It also marks the season when tens of thousands of families in the United States begin filling out the FAFSA for the next academic year. If you have a child headed to college, you know what I mean. The FAFSA is the gateway to billions of dollars in financial aid (federal and state grants, work-study funds, low-interest loans, and more). With the cost of college rising much faster than the rate of inflation, an ever-increasing percentage of families are dependent on this aid.
Within families, the burden is increasingly falling on students, two-thirds of whom are now carrying debt. The average borrower in the class of 2015 walked the stage $35,000 in the hole. Which makes me wonder, How many current (and incoming) students are making decisions today that will put them in even deeper debt? What is clear is that thousands upon thousands of students need help assessing the largest investment they’ve ever made.
How should Christian students in particular think about their finances in this transitional and formative season of life?
1. View college as an education and an investment.
As the cost of college has skyrocketed, the perspective of many students has shifted from college for learning to college for earning. As Christians, we’re not to love money (1 Timothy 6:9–10), but we are to be wise stewards of it (Proverbs 6:6–8; 21:20). So while learning for the sake of learning is wonderful, it is wise to consider your likely future earnings when deciding how much to spend or borrow. An engineering student graduating with $30,000 in debt will be in better shape than an English major with the same debt load. This isn’t a denigration of English majors. It’s being realistic about the world we inhabit.
“College is not just about preparing for a living, but for the totality of your life.”
Conversely, if you’re pursuing an applied major, don’t be so laser-focused on “what I need to know to get a job” that you neglect the value of general education. For one, you’re not just preparing for that first job, but for your fourth, fifth, and sixth jobs. Put more broadly, college is not just about preparing for a living; it’s about preparing for the totality of your life.
2. Assess the financial picture.
Our entire life is to be lived before God and for God (1 Corinthians 10:31). That includes how we pay for college. Since your future is what’s at stake, assume responsibility for the process. Take the time to understand what’s happening. Your college has a list price, but each student pays a different net price. Basically,
Net price = List price – Grants – Scholarships
Net price is what counts, because that’s how much you’re expected to pay from savings, earn from employment, or borrow.
At public universities, scholarships are often harder to come by, but you may qualify for grants, and if you’re an in-state student, the price has already been marked down. At private universities, it’s not uncommon for a student’s net price to be 20–40 percent lower than list price. It depends on the college’s resources, your income bracket, and how much the school wants you. Thankfully, there are ways to anticipate your net price using publicly available data (see Chapter 3 in Beating the College Debt Trap). Choose a college that you can afford not just for one year but through graduation.
3. Don’t assume college has to cost a fortune.
A recent study found that grant aid could cover all but $2,000 per year in tuition at a public, four-year college for three out of four students from families with annual incomes below $50,000 — yet many such students never requested the aid.
It’s simply a myth that college has to cost a fortune. It can cost a fortune, but it doesn’t need to. Some overspend to attend a “prestigious” school. Others on a needlessly luxurious room and board plan. Still others overspend — I’m on sensitive ground here — because they think they cannot afford not to attend a Christian college. Christian colleges offer clear advantages, but God will be with you at a secular school, too. Finally, many overspend because they’re unaware of how the system works, so they fail to work the system.
Here’s the thing: That you graduate college is more important than where you go to college. Put another way, the value of the degree far exceeds any incremental value of spending more to get a “better” degree from a “better” school (assuming we’re talking about the same degree — associate’s vs. associate’s, bachelor’s vs. bachelor’s). So make a budget and stick to it. Getting a great education is more about the effort you put in than the amount of money you spend.
4. Minimize debt so you can live with impact.
“Minimize your debt so that you can maximum your freedom to serve Christ.”
Just recently I heard about college graduates being declined by missions agencies because they had too much debt. How tragic! I also heard from a respected seminary that 34% of their incoming class already had more than $10,000 in debt. Yet for every missionary or pastor held back from the Greatest Cause by crippling debt, I fear that there are many more Christians who won’t even consider strategic, lower-paying lines of work because they anticipate having too much debt to repay.
Borrowing should be your absolute last resort, because those funds must be repaid with interest. And excessive debt can limit your options after graduation in unanticipated ways. Count the cost at the outset. Minimize your debt so that you can maximum your freedom to serve Christ.