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Is College Debt Worth It?

by Anthony Turner and Heather Shalley

If only that college degree didn’t come with a price tag. Just like what schools our students attend and which majors they pursue, how much debt they accrue will affect the rest of their lives. And unfortunately, parents who remove themselves from the payment discussion can leave their children floundering to understand the financial complexities of a college education—federal versus private loans, or FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) versus scholarships, for example—which is why it’s imperative you tackle this process together.

Determining How to Pay for Your Student's Education

Identify Resources

The first step in determining how to pay for your student’s education is to identify all available resources. How much are you and your student able to contribute to college costs up front? Sources of contributions could include government aid, scholarships, savings, a second mortgage, or student-work income. You will want to consider how to minimize the amount of money your child will be responsible to pay back and even avoid taking out loans altogether, if possible. For example, if both the parents and the student could commit to paying $100 each month toward tuition, that could drastically decrease the amount needed each year in loans. Do keep in mind that your student will need money to spend while at college, so it may not be wise to deplete all of his savings.

Determine What the Education is Worth

After you have determined what resources are available, the next consideration is how much your student is willing to pay for his education. The answer may depend how much he is willing to pay for an education from a particular school. You can help your student think through some basic questions: Does the school specialize in my area of study? What is the school’s reputation? What are the potential career opportunities or networking connections I would have from attending this specific institution? And what would my possible loan debt be if I completed a degree here?

As an example, a student may choose to attend a local community college with a decent reputation that offers a degree in English literature and graduate with minimal loan debt. However, because the school wouldn’t have a high level of specialization for that degree, the student wouldn’t be well connected or in a particularly impressive place after graduate, but he could then start his career without any debt.

A pre-med student, however, could spend four years at Harvard—a school with a great reputation that would undoubtedly position the graduation for connections and success—and come out with a mountain of debt. Which path is the smarter one?

Exploring Reasonable Debt

In order to answer this question, I’d like to introduce the idea of reasonable debt. Reasonable debt means not going to a below-average state school, majoring in elementary education, and coming out with $100,000 in student loans. And reasonable debt means not having to choose between retiring or paying off your student loans. Reasonable debt is a new way to understand the cost versus value of a college education, and it involves educating both the parents and the students about the process. Instead of encouraging students to sign up for a loan package like it’s Monopoly money, we think it’s time to help students evaluate exactly how much they should (and should not) be spending on college. The catch is this: it’s different for everybody.

Reasonable Debt Formula

Mark Kantrowitz, a recognized expert in the area of student financial aid, has created a formula to help families. As a general rule, he says that over the course of their education students shouldn’t borrow more than the salary they will earn in their first year of work. Keep in mind the borrowing depends on the school attended and the line of work. Some students may borrow more only to find a “dream job” that pays less than they anticipated.

As a quick rule, if a dependent student (according to the FAFSA) takes out the full amount of their Federal Direct Loans each year, the loans for an undergraduate degree would total $27,000. This does not include loans from private banks, additional funds for students who are considered independent, or the additional amount if a parent is unable to borrow the PLUS loan under the federal program for parents.

According to the Institute for College Access and Success, 2015 graduates had an average of $30,100 in debt, and according to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, they earned an average starting salary of around $50,000 per year. So overall it seems that the class of 2015 graduated with less debt than the salaries of their first jobs, which Kantrowitz would say is a success.

The Importance of Personal Values

While the formula for reasonable debt is important, ultimately what will help make the decisions regarding student loans much easier is a clear understanding of your own values. Referring back to our earlier examples, one student may value a lower debt load and choose a less expensive, though perhaps less prominent or esteemed, school, while another may be willing to incur more debt to attend a more prestigious college with a specialized program. As you help your student establish and articulate the values for his educational experience and eventual graduation, you will be establishing a framework to evaluate schools. This is a long process, so the sooner you begin it, the better.

Ultimately, we as Christians are called to bring honor to God. There are plenty of sources that discuss the importance of earning a degree and what it means over the course of a lifetime in earnings. But, the pursuit should not only be to obtain a degree for a salary. God has called us to excellence in all that we do. Colossians 3:23–24 states, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”

You can’t make this decision for your student, nor would you want to. But together your family can evaluate the merits of schools, the values at play, and the debt that’s at stake. Hopefully, through a lot of discussion, prayer, and a little math, you’ll be able to come to a decision you all feel comfortable with—even after graduation when the loan payments finally start up.

Let Moody Help!

Is your student looking for a school that will honor his or her values, offer ministry-focused education, and live up to the investment made? Come visit Moody Bible Institute!

Moody Publishers strives to educate and edify the Christian and to evangelize the non-Christian by ethically publishing conservative, evangelical Christian literature and other media for all ages around the world, and to help provide resources for Moody Bible Institute in its training of future Christian leaders. Learn more at

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