To FAFSA or Not to FAFSA: A Former Student's View of Student Loans
It's getting to be that kind of year again--the time when you anticipate filling out your tax returns, sighing with relief, and then realizing that you're not finished with forms yet. If you're a student looking at loans, there's at least one more to go, the dreaded FAFSA. Up until a few years ago, I approached the FAFSA with some trepidation. It wasn't the form itself--that wasn't bad at all. The problem came when I thought about taking out even more money than I already had to finance my education. Was it really worth it? Would I ever be able to pay them back? Was I getting myself further and further into debt needlessly and uselessly?
I always filled it out in the end, partly because I felt helpless to get through school any other way, but also because I thought that what I was learning was not just interesting, but also important. For the last couple of years, I haven't needed to fill one out. However, I'm anticipating doing so again so that my husband can receive scholarships (he's going back to school part-time). When I thought about the question of loans from my current vantage point, I realized my perspective had changed.
Is it worth it...to you?
It's hard to determine the value of education. I know this because, when I was first taking out loans, I tried. There's a possible financial value, though some would argue that those who get a college education don't necessarily make that much more money than those who don't. Sure, the difference ads up over time, but it's debatable as to whether that difference is worth the loans.
There are other potential areas of value. Your education may give you power that you wouldn't have otherwise. It may raise you above your peers and help you stand out. Or, the information you get might just be valuable to you. In the end, the real question here becomes, "Is it worth it to you?" Are you going to get something from you education that you wouldn't otherwise have? What is that and how valuable is it to you?
Will it always be worth that to you?
This question might be even tougher to answer. If everything works out according to your plans, then your loans will be worth it. But what if things don't work out? What if you can't get a job in your field and you have to take a job somewhere else just to make loan payments? What if you start working in your field only to find that, while you enjoy knowing the information, you don't actually enjoy applying it in the traditional way? Will they still be worth it to you then?
Finding even a partial answer to this question asks you to dig deeper inside yourself. What do you value? What do you abhor? Then, you have to use your imagination. Is this education that I value for X and Y reasons worth it even if it somehow puts me in situation Z, which I abhor? While you probably won't end up in a worst-case scenario, you could. Also, if you can say, "Yes!" to the question above, you have more assurance of being pleased with the choices you make now for many years to come.
What will it really cost you?
I wish I had known better just how much money I was taking out. It's hard to fathom $25,000, or $30,000, or even $78,000 when you're young. You have nothing to compare it to, so you don't know how this loan stands up to the value of other items you might want to purchase later, like a car or a house. Even when I was financing graduate school, I didn't have the life experience to know how much money I was taking out in loans. It's only now, when I'm looking at purhasing some of these bigger ticket times and when I've tracked my savings so I know roughly how long it will take me to save for those things, that I have any sense of how much my education is worth in terms of my work and my time.
All the same, my loans ended up feeling like a lot more money when I was paying them off than they did when I took them out. As I talk to other people, I hear this over and over.
Additionally, the number 1 thing I wish I'd known about my loans before I took them out is that student loans are a burden! They might well be a burden you choose to take up because it is worth bearing, but they are a burden nonetheless. You have to keep track of them. You have to work a little harder and not spend a little less so you can make your payments. There will probably be some purchases that get put on hold because you need that money to pay off your loans. They will influence who you work for and how much money you need to make. If you want to work for yourself, they will influence how many clients you need and how many hours you put in.
There's no way to escape any of these things; they're just true. They're not any more or any less of a burden than other things you might take on, like buying a car, purchasing a home, having children, or even getting married. For some reason, though, they aren't commonly thought of in the same category. They're seen as "lighter," somehow, and as less influential in the rest of your life. Since this actually isn't true, anyone who is considering taking loans out needs to know that they will pay for their education with more than money. Their time, energy, and freedom will be among the other items taxed in the repayment process.
How well do you handle money and stress?
Student loans are definitely not worth defaulting on. They can ruin your credit as easy as any other loan. If you can't remember to pay your credit card bill or your school bill on time, they might not be for you. Taking them out in the first place is one thing, but taking a hit to your credit score because of them is entirely another.
Also, student loans are a hassle. Even if you pay them online and don't receive any paper mail about them (like I do), they're a pain. I have to remember when they're due, make sure I move enough money into my transitional checking account to cover them, then make the payment. Because online payments can be slow, I have to make sure the money stays in my account until the loan company takes it out. Overall it's very do-able, but it's a pain to keep track of all those little details. If these sorts of things stress you out, it might be worth it to find another way to pay for school.
In the end, I'm glad I took out my loans. I wish they were lower, but my education was worth every penny. I don't necessarily get to make more money than I would have otherwise, but I have skills that help people and I see the value of my education every time I see someone make a breakthrough (cheesy but true)! I value education for it's own sake as well as for the sake of what you can do with it, so I'm pretty sure I'll always think that my decision to take out the loans was wise. I've worked hard and will have my loan paid off in less than two years from when I started making payments on it, and two years of work are worth my education. I'm good with money and able to keep track of details without stressing out, so the repayment process is not overly painful for me. I can bear the burden my loans cause and that burden is also worth it in light of what I've received.
If you've taken out loans, I hope you can say the same thing. If you're looking at taking out loans, do a little research before you sign your name...you just might change your mind!
If you're looking at taking out student loans, here are some resources that might help: