tulane-public-relations-boring-teacherThere’s Value In A Non-Traditional Path To College 

by Dawn Casey-Rowe, Teacher & Holder of Student Loan Debt 

It’s that time of year again–college time.

You go to the mailbox. It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for your whole life. The one that parents and teachers tell you will determine the course of your very existence. You reach into the box. The thick letter means you got in, the thin number-ten business envelope is a sure sign of rejection. Your hand feels around in the dark. Bill, bill, junk mail…then, you see it. The thin envelope.

“We are sorry to inform you that…”

“After careful consideration…”


You’re eighteen, too old to cry. Your whole life is flashing before your eyes on one piece of recycled paper. Don’t despair! Let’s flip this equation, shall we? Could it be that rejection isn’t that bad? That there is a fate far worse than rejection? “What’s worse than rejection?” you ask. After all, you’re the one holding the rejection letter–it’s all very well and good for some old teacher to say it’s not so bad.

I’ll tell you what’s worse than rejection. Acceptance in the wrong place or by the wrong crowd is far worse than rejection. Just like the wrong crowd can get you into trouble, the wrong college can get you into a lifetime of unforgivable, unrecoverable debt.

Trust me on this–I see your financial aid packages. Some are fantastic, but others–not so much. Getting rejected feels terrible. Getting into a school you can’t afford is far worse. Getting into a school you think you can afford then trying to pay for it when you can’t is the financial kiss of death.

My high school teacher urged us not to pay overpay for college when we could get an equivalent education for close to free choice local universities. I hope you’ll listen better than me. I went to an expensive undergraduate school then switched careers and paid for 1.5 graduate degrees so I could teach.

I’m still paying off my last $15K. Will you be paying college loans at my age?

What does that financial aid package really mean?

Loans vs. grants. Grants are good. Loans must be paid back. An easy way to remember it is “g” grants equals “g” good. However, not all loans are created equal. Some are the key to affording a good quality education. Others are predatory in nature, meaning they suck the very life out of you, no different than a tapeworm or flea.

All loans carry interest. A good loan is a reasonable amount with a low rate of interest that is deferred until after you graduate. A bad loan is a ticking time bomb.

Many loans have interest that starts to accrue right away–hiding and compounding so that when you graduate, you owe a ton more than you borrowed. Some loans even need to be paid back as you attend college. That comes out of your ramen noodle fund–what student has money for that?

Parent loans. Many parents take parent loans and have students agree to pay the loans after graduation. These stay in the parent’s name and can ruin their chances of retiring to a tropical island if you can’t pay them back. Don’t bankrupt your parents–that’s not nice.

Work study. That guarantees you a job with a salary paid by the university. All my work study jobs were minimum wage on campus–things like the cafeteria, where I was the Sunday morning carver. I also worked in the bookstore. The advantage is that they’re close and they understand things like final exams. You can probably make more money off campus. I made three times the money waitressing.

Work is an opportunity cost–you have to look at time you spend working in terms of what other opportunities are out there if you hustle. Work study may not be to your benefit, but it’s listed on your financial aid package.

Live off campus: I looked at one girl’s loan package and noticed she had a scholarship for tuition, but not room and board. Everyone wants the college “experience,” but room and board is really expensive. Would you be willing to give up some “experience” to get a solid education and keep yourself out of debt? This might be the difference between being able to afford college and really struggling after graduation to make those minimum loan payments–which can exceed a thousand dollars a month for expensive colleges.

What can you do about this?

Appeal. Sometimes your circumstances change or a college really wants you. It doesn’t hurt to call a financial aid counselor and say your family needs more assistance. There may be additional sources of funding they can award.

Go part time. I spoke with a girl looking at a high-priced technical institute for a specialty career. She had an internship during high school and wanted to stay with her company pretty much forever. My suggestion was to continuously take two courses at night and one each summer semester while working. Tons of people do this. You’ll sacrifice your social life, but graduating without debt will be worth it.

Ask your boss to pay. I had a job that paid for graduate school for employees–just not me. Nearly everyone got a law degree or an MBA. I wanted to a teaching degree.

“Sorry, Casey,” said my boss. “That’s not related to this job. You’ll take it and leave.” I pointed out everyone else was taking their law degrees and MBAs and leaving, and maybe I wanted to go into corporate training.

That didn’t work out for me–I should’ve taken the free MBA. A great many of my friends got to be lawyers and MBAs and go on to lucrative careers on the company dime. I got more college debt, which, as we discussed, is not wise.

A lot of companies have education benefits. Ask.

Consider the military. I recommend the military to my most motivated students–the ones who need expensive college for rocket science and medicine. If you qualify, the military will pay for your education and give you a cool job.

The Reserve Officers Training Corps is a program that accepts students on a four-year scholarship. You go to college as usual and fulfill your military requirements during the year. You’ll have a class, drill, activities, and usually a summer requirement. For this, you’ll be paid a stipend and your tuition is paid. Upon graduation, you are commissioned as an officer and serve a certain number of years depending on the job you take in the military. You can stay in or leave after your term is up. You leave college debt free, with a job and the chance to serve your country.

The National Guard also has education opportunities as does the active-duty military should you decide to enlist right after high school. You accrue money for your education or you can take classes while on active duty. The key is this–if they offer free classes, take them and knock them out of the park.

Log onto your computer and learn. There is literally nothing you cannot learn online. You can follow and connect with experts in your chosen online with places such as Twitter. You can take online courses at some of the best universities in the world.

There are so many careers out there that do not require a college degree–they require the ability to produce. Learn, do, then learn more. Surround yourself with a crowd inspires you and pushes you to learn more. You can be successful without college if you’re continuously learning and pushing yourself to be great.

So, what do I do now?

Go to Plan B. Take classes at a local school or start project “Log In and Learn.” Get a job doing something you think you’ll love and evaluate it for a few years. Look at all the other possibilities around you. Research other cities you might like to experience and get a job somewhere you’ve never been before. Volunteer for six months doing something you feel passionate about. Write about everything you can write about in your pause to find your new path. Make a video diary. Put it up on YouTube. Do anything! Everything good that you do now adds to your future, which will be great, I promise you.

It might be even better than you imagined. Take that rejection letter and write, “I am going to rule the world,” right there on the back. Write a list of dreams you hope to accomplish. Put the letter away for four years.

Go tackle #1 on the list. Come back to the letter and see if you are just a little bit happier than you would have been getting a bill for $250,000. Have you grown, progressed, and become a better person? Are you still on the positive path? Chances are you are and you have. And you have just a little bit more money in your pocket than your friends to show for it.

You have not suffered a fate far worse than rejection. You have traveled four years on the road to amazing.

Congratulations. That’s a job well done.

Adapted image attribution flickr user tulanepublicrelations; There’s Value In A Non-Traditional Path To College