Tuesday, October 11, 2011

On the cost of a college education

I have recently heard of a friend of a friend who is at a prestigious university (not Brown). She is a pre-med. She has no resources, but the university has been providing her with financial aid and helping her find paid work.

This year, as a junior, to save money she lives off-campus and commutes 2 hours a day. To earn money she has side jobs working 18 hours a week. It turns out that her grades in science are not quite good enough for her to go to med school, so she is considering becoming a physician's assistant instead. By the time she is done with her physician's assistant degree, she will be about 300000 dollars in debt. Three hundred thousand dollars!!

She thought of transferring to a cheaper school, but she would not get the diploma with the high-status university name that goes on it. As she is now a junior, it seems like a big waste of money to forsake that diploma by not doing the last leg of her studies there. At one point she thought of joining the army solely as a way to alleviate her mounting debt. When she becomes a physician's assistant, she will earn 90000 to 100000 dollars a year. She imagines that she will be able to use 60000 per year to pay back her debt, and then she could be done in five years. I imagine that, if she is careful, she will be able to use 30000 per year (already a heavy burden) to pay back her debt, and then, ten years down the line, perhaps, in her mid-thirties, she will finally be free.

Her parents, who are clearly not money-wise, did not advise her on that. She, young and euphoric about being admitted to a top school, did not see it coming. The university, proud of its generous need-blind policy, probably feels good about giving her no-interest or low-interest loans.

In reality she has fallen into a trap. Regarding the extra-curricula opportunities that her university offers - student life and clubs, athletic facilities, subsidized outings, travels and shows, etc. - she has no time to take advantage of them. The wealthy students can take some time for those, but as for her, all she does is study and work. The wealthy students, if their academic level is borderline for med school, can focus all of their energy on improving their grades, but as for her, she has to, for about 30 hours per week (if one includes the commute time), take care of money worries. In a way she, who is poor, is subsidizing the education of the richer students.


  1. This is one of the reasons that I am happy to be working at a public university where a student could conceivably earn the $7500 (in-state) yearly tuition & fees in a summer of hard work and incur debt for living expenses alone.

    I have heard a few stories of students who move to Oregon for a year before starting at OSU so they qualify for in-state tuition. A wise move that will save them nearly $20K and perhaps have them starting university a little more mature.

  2. this is such a sad story. as a foreign grad student in the US i feel blessed to be getting full tuition waiver plus a decent stipend which even allows me to send money back home.

  3. The $300K in debt can't possibly be all from tuition, can it? She's only a junior, so only been in school two full years...

  4. Anonymous #2: it's not her current debt but the future debt she will have after her four years of undergraduate studies plus the additional two or three years to become a physician's assistant. My guess is that she's probably close to $100K in debt so far.

    Anonymous #1: I agree.

    Cora: it depends how they spend that one year. If it's productive, all good. Else it just removes one year from the period of their lives when they should be absorbing knowledge like sponges, and deferring by one year the time when they will start getting an income (hopefully an income greater than $20K).

  5. She should consider taking a year's leave of absence, and transfer to a cheap state (even community) school and earn credits that would transfer to the more prestigious school.

  6. Just an anecdote from my personal experience. In undergrad I went to a state school which cost about $10,000 a year including all expenses. Despite graduating with high honors and 2 degrees, no well known tech company would even consider me for an interview (including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, DE Shaw). Simply being enrolled at Brown gets me an interview (landing the job may be more difficult). There is no doubt in my mind that the name "Brown" has great value, but I don't know how I could put a dollar value on it.

    On a side note. I thought most of the "prestigious universities" are giving full tuition scholarships to every student who's parents make less than $100,000 per year. This would seem to counteract the poor subsiding the poor effect you mention.

  7. There's an interesting collection of essays about student debt which was recently featured on the interblogs: http://boingboing.net/2011/10/07/122076.html

  8. Just don't study in the US. Go somewhere else :)


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