Debt-Free Education

I keep hearing about people who struggle under mountains of debt they accumulated as a result of getting a college degree. This is why I decided to do a little promotional activity for my own university.

Tuition for in-state residents of our state university is just $8,864.80 per year (that’s just $739 per month). Tuition includes textbook rental, so the expense of textbooks is covered. I find this kind of tuition to be very reasonable, especially since there is also a great number of scholarships and grants both on the state and federal level.

Many of our students choose to live off campus, but if you want an on-campus experience, your room and board will cost you $8,051.00 per year. This is a price I also consider very reasonable. The room and board cost the same for out-of-state students. Tuition for them, however, is higher and runs to the amount of $18,809.80 (or $1567 per month). This isn’t low, but it is still a lot less than at many other places.

So what do you get in return for this money? Our university made a very smart decision to keep hiring aggressively during the years of the recession. In 2009, when I was hired, the majority of universities canceled or suspended their searches for tenure-track professors. I estimate that at least 60% of all applications I’d sent out returned to me with a letter saying that the search had been cancelled due to the recession. Our university, however, realized that this was the best time to bring a wave of enthusiastic, promising young academics to our campus. I was one of 55 new tenure-track profs hired in that year. Next year, we hired 40+ people. And these hiring efforts continued the year after that.

As a result, we now have a big group of young scholars who graduated from great schools and are very active in research. Nobody else wanted us but this university did. And it offered us great conditions of employment, too, instead of trying to exploit the desperate situation of recent PhD graduates, like some other schools did.

Our undergrads are taught by actual professors on all levels. This doesn’t happen at Ivy League schools where two thirds of undergrad courses are not taught by professors. You can go through your entire Major at certain Ivy League schools without ever taking a course taught by a person with a PhD.

Our university does everything it can to update its technology. None of the universities where I worked before coming here had anything similar to the kind of technology we get here. And I’m talking about really prestigious, famous schools where tuition is several times greater than what it is here. For language and culture courses, for example, it makes all the difference in the world to have satellite television from Spain, a languages lab, a plasma screen to show movies, computers in the classroom, sound systems, etc. It’s one thing to make photocopies of the Mayan pyramids and distribute them to students. It is a completely different experience to show them the pyramids on a huge screen.

Of course, we don’t have anything similar to the prestige of Ivy League schools. However, having studied and taught at the Ivies, I believe that this prestige is not worth getting in debt for. If you are from a background that offers you connections with important people, you’ll have those connections anyways. If you are from a poorer background, you will be a pariah at your Ivy and all that money you pay to be there will be wasted.

In the US, it is more than possible to get a good college degree for a very reasonable amount of money. I strongly recommend that you consider us or any other state university before getting into ruinous debt to pay for nothing but a cool-sounding name. As an added bonus, you might get taught by me, or somebody like me. And that’s nothing to be sneezed at. 🙂

81 thoughts on “Debt-Free Education

  1. This is an interesting analysis, Clarissa. Thank you for it!

    I have one major quibble. I think textbook rental is an outrage. Students should keep their textbooks and gradually build a personal library. Getting rid of them at the end of the term is a terrible idea. I used to urge students in advanced courses to continue working on some of the material we had discussed, or some material we had not had time for, after the course was over, and to come and see me anytime in the future. A few always did. Nowadays, they cannot, since so many of them do not still ahve their books. It is as though the system is determined that they will stop learning about a particular subject once they finish the course, whereas the course should be merely an assisted startup for more and deeper pursuit of knowledge.

    Of course publishers do not help, since they price textbooks so insanely high. One of my junior math major students told me she had to spend over $1000 on books this semester.

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      1. I hate textbook rentals. The whole point of owning the book is to be able to mark it up. Fortunately, I’ll use my physics textbook for another one and and half semesters, so it kind of pays for itself. (It was the most expensive at nearly two hundred dollars.)

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  2. “You can go through your entire Major at certain Ivy League schools without ever taking a course taught by a person with a PhD.”

    Do you have some data or statistics to support this claim? I don’t questioned it, I just want to know more about it to retain Quebeckers in Québec Universities…

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      1. However, and I play the devil’s advocate here, I think teaching is a great experience for a PhD student! But you debunked very well the so-called “prestige” that’s really a white-bourgeois segregationism attributed to these Universities.

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  3. While I agree that the education of the Ivies is not worth getting into a mound of debt for, I always feel compelled to quibble on the affordability arguments made about private universities. Prestigious private schools frequently have large endowments that allow them to provide very generous financial aid packages. And generally speaking, if they admit you, they will try their hardest to find a way to make it affordable. So in some cases (and this was the position that I was in) going to a prestigious private university is actually *cheaper* than going to the state school. My advice to kids is always to apply everywhere they might want to go, being sure to include a broad range of university styles, and then to worry about affordability and value after they’ve been accepted.

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    1. That’s the other point, many private universities (and I don’t talk about trash-cans like Capella) have better financial aid packages than state universities. Imagine if we would have a real free market!

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      1. What we need is a market based around the needs of the Terminator robot. Titanium, cybernetics, and social services will be the only major commodities. Not only will scientists, technicians, and industrial laborers be highly compensated with warmer smocks and more savory gruel, but so will aesthetes and social workers as they will be the ones able to teach emotionless killing machines how to smile and appreciate beauty.

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  4. Clarissa, I do agree with everything you say concerning the advantages of the state universities, but the title of the post was “debt-free education”. My daughter is in a university. Which is in Canada, and we are residents of Canada, so it costs us about as much as your school would cost the resident of your state. Or even a bit less. We can pull it off without anybody going into debt because I am a professor, my wife works too and our daughter is an only child. Most of your students have to come up with tuition and living expenses by themselves. And, if I am not mistaken, you complained that starting salaries for college graduates in your area are as large 😦 as 15K/year…

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    1. This is just a little more than my sister’s and my undregrad education cost and we finished it debt-free. We were also recent immigrants. And we didn’t get any grants or scholarships while among our students almost nobody pays the entire amount.

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    2. Agreed. When I get out of college, my sister’s going into college–this puts us into hard financial straits. In addition, the state government is trying to eradicate the school my mom works at, which would put her out of a job; she would have to go to college again to get another one. We didn’t get any financial aid from the school–I think I got five hundred a year from the state, which covers maybe half the cost of textbooks per semester. So while the state system where I live is less expensive in comparison to the private schools I’ve visited, chances are I will not be graduating completely debt-free.

      My suitemate goes through something similar: she gets nothing from the school, five hundred a year from the state, and virtually nothing from the federal government. She works three jobs to help her family cover the cost of tuition (we pay about twenty-thousand a year, including room and board). And the only reason it’s enough is that she’s an RA, which covers her room and board.

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    1. Nobody is asking people to come up with 60K on the spot and produce it momentarily. Nobody asks people to come up with even a great percentage of that. Low-income families get to contribute exactly $0 to the tuition bill. Families with income of over 125K per year are asked to contribute 5K per year. I don’t think it’s high at all.

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      1. Interesting. We have to come up with ten thousand per semester, unless we get need-based financial aid or a waiver. Different states have different systems, I suppose.

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  5. I also want to remind everybody that there should be some cost associated with higher education because otherwise people will simply put no effort at all into it. Just like with psychoanalysis.

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    1. I don’t agree with this. My education was pretty much given to me; I had a very generous scholarship that covered almost all of my tuition, plus room and board. (My parents made up what little was left; I paid for my textbooks). I worked very hard at it, earning two degrees in completely disparate fields in exactly four years. The reason I had to do this so fast was that my generous scholarship, which allowed me to go to college without taking on any debt, was going to dry up in four years. So I was given a great opportunity by having my education paid for, and I made use of it. I consider myself ridiculously lucky to have gotten such a good education for so little, and I wonder why more people are not given such an opportunity.

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    1. Then obviously you had already proven your interest in and dedication to learning, which is why you got the scholarship. It was well-deserved, and it’s great you got it.

      I just don’t see why a student who comes to class to sleep and can’t memorize the name of the course by the end of the semester should be given the same kind of assistance.

      If the education becomes completely free, I will get too many of the students like the ones I described in the post on the Freshman Seminar because they’ll just come to college to see what it’s all about. In the meanwhile, good, dedicated students will lose time as they sit there, waiting for the lazy kids to weed themselves out.

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      1. Yeah, I can see why that would be bad, for the professors and the students. I guess what I’d like to see is a lot more need- and merit-based financial aid, for students who can do the work, who would like to go to college, but don’t have lots of money sitting around and aren’t sure they’ll be able to get a high-paying job (or any job) when they get out. I know merit-only awards are a bit thin on the ground, and need-based, or need-plus-merit-based, seem to have been under attack lately. (I know the Pell grants are being significantly cut; not sure about other ones).

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  6. For scoring high on a particular standardized test, that is. (It was a National Merit scholarship). My state university is one of two in the country that offers such generous scholarships to National Merit winners, because it is trying to attract them and improve its academic reputation. So I was lucky in that I happened to have a school right near me that was willing to pay for almost all of my education because I got that award; some schools give only modest scholarships to National Merit winners.

    I did not fit the typical High Achiever profile in high school, though I was smart, tested well, took (some) hard classes and got decent grades. I was nowhere near valedictorian and only participated in a few extracurriculars that genuinely interested me, and took, along with my extra math and science classes, lots of extra art and gym, because I liked those too, even though art and gym are seen as goof-off classes.

    I think many schools would have overlooked me, or just given me a small award that wouldn’t cover the whole package. My family was relatively high-income (though less so than it is now), but had a lot of expenses, so I wasn’t sure I could count on them to pay for four years at a state school (maybe two at a junior college and two at a state school), and I have always been scared to take on debt because you never know if you’ll be able to repay it. So without that award, which is unusual for students with my decent, but not stellar, qualifications, I don’t know if I’d have gone to college.

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    1. Oh, my family (and I) would love to only have to pay $4,500 per semester. We pay over twice that much now, and it’s still a state school. It would be much easier to pay off, and I wouldn’t feel like I have to sell my soul to get scholarships.

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    2. The only price that should exist for this is the cost of non-working. But in this era of inequality, Harvard has the good recipe.

      So no tuition fees for less than 60 000$ families or less than 60 000 (ok, maybe less for them could be discussed) autonomous individuals.

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      1. Do you know the size of Harvard’s endowment? We don’t have anything of the kind.

        I don’t understand why a healthy adult can’t make 4K per semester to pay for their own education

        60K is a huge salary. Why can’t a person who pays this much scrounge up $700 per month?

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  7. Prestige is a nice idea on the surface of it, but I couldn’t aim for prestige myself, even if I wanted to, because my libido was not formulated that way by historical effects. Rather, I have an inverted notion of prestige: to go against the British and their norms is prestige.

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  8. “I also want to remind everybody that there should be some cost associated with higher education because otherwise people will simply put no effort at all into it. Just like with psychoanalysis.”

    I disagree with it, and we have to note, contrary to psychoanalysis, that even a tuition-free education has a non-working cost. In Québec, the problem is that Universities (all of them except McGill) admit too much students. Do you want to replace smart poor students by rich idiots?

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        1. Non-working?? I don’t know a single student I studied with in Quebec who didn’t work. I took 6 courses each semester except the first, was a straight-A student, and worked 3-4 part-time jobs at any given time. I’d say I worked a lot more than now because I was younger and more energetic.

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  9. Here it’s around $2K per semester now. Where I went it was much less, adjusting for inflation a little less than $1K a semester. Same school (UC Berkeley) is now over $7K a semester, which is a real shame – it used to be within reach.

    Louisiana waives tuition the first 4 years if you come in with a certain GPA and do well. But then there are living expenses, not cheap, and people who are paying and who have financial aid, are getting a lot of that in loans not grants.

    I think debt load at graduation for those who had to take loans averages about $36K here.

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  10. For literature classes, many of the primary texts are available used, or as free (out-of-copyright) downloadable files on the internet, or if in-copyright, as e-reader texts that could be marked up by the student.

    City College of New York had a long tradition of no-tuition* education for all, and produced an amazing number of graduates who went on to become outstanding in science, medicine, the arts, business of various sorts, law, and just about any field that you can name. Of course, during its heyday CCNY benefited from the European chaos, hiring large numbers of Jewish and other professors who fled Germany and Axis countries.

    “No-tuition” doesn’t mean “free”. There is no such thing as “free” education, because time spent in class and study is time lost for employment (“opportunity cost”). Furthermore, one has to cover one’s own living costs.

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    1. “There is no such thing as “free” education, because time spent in class and study is time lost for employment ”

      -I completely disagree with this. For a penniless immigrant like myself, this was time lost for partying and entertainment, never for employment.

      I want to remind everybody that I come from a country where all higher education was completely free for everybody for decades. The prestigious higher education is still completely free. The results have been absolutely disastrous.

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      1. Don’t blame the former USSR countries’ problems on the schools or professors. I can’t imagine a world where it is a positive good to be illiterate and innumerate. You might blame the knuckle-headed political system the graduates face and help perpetuate, but blame the education – why?

        Opportunity cost: The time you spent studying was time you didn’t spend working an extra 30 or 40 hours a week in addition to your primary paid job. It is not a given that people will work only 40 hours a week. Many people will spend the “extra” waking time playing, many will spend it taking care of family responsibilities, many will spend it at school or at learning skills in a less formal setting.

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        1. “Don’t blame the former USSR countries’ problems on the schools or professors.”

          -That wasn’t what I said at all. I just said that students (including me, a very studious type) didn’t study at all, cheated rampantly, and acquired zero knowledge at the university.

          ‘The time you spent studying was time you didn’t spend working an extra 30 or 40 hours a week in addition to your primary paid job.”

          -I don’t understand this statement at all. I said that as a penniless immigrant who was a primary caregiver of an underage child I worked 3-4 part-time jobs at any given time while being a stellar student at the university. And I see that situation as completely normal and positive.

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  11. Clarissa, there just aren’t the jobs right now for all full-time day students to earn $4,000.00 per semester, unless the oldest profession is included. (Sex work is recession proof, apparently, and not all of it is street-walking. It is not unknown for college women to pole-dance their way through college. Good-looking white blonde college women who can present as middle class can sell their eggs to fertility clinic brokers. Heterosexual young men can be paid for being on the receiving end of BJs.).

    Also, $60,000.00 combined family salary may not go as far as you would think, if there is a family member with uninsurable medical problems or a special needs child whose non-medical schooling and psychiatric/psychological/social needs are not covered by insurance.

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    1. I’ve thought about being a Sugar Baby before to supplement my income, actually. It’s better than street-style sex work, because you make more, are less likely to get hassled by the cops, have to deal with only one client, and you make considerably more money. Sadly though, I’m probably not the type of beauty they’re looking for, since I’m rather far from being a large breasted blonde.
      I also considered selling my eggs once, but the clinics don’t want autistic people’s eggs. I should have been offended by that, but really I was just glad that they acknowledged the genetic component of autism, rather than trying to pass it off as environmentally caused.

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    2. Nancy P., I don’t find it useful to paint scenarios of the “life’s so scary” kind. If a person doesn’t have $750 per month for any non-vital expense, such as higher education, they work full-time, save, and then pay for the education.

      There is absolutely no competition for low-paying jobs on campus. When we tried to suggest to a student who works in our lab that she should come to work on time and not 40 minutes later, she said lazily that she’s willing to quit any time, only where will we find anybody else for the job?

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  12. bloggerclarissa :
    “There is no such thing as “free” education, because time spent in class and study is time lost for employment ”
    -I completely disagree with this. For a penniless immigrant like myself, this was time lost for partying and entertainment, never for employment.
    I want to remind everybody that I come from a country where all higher education was completely free for everybody for decades. The prestigious higher education is still completely free. The results have been absolutely disastrous.

    Why were the results disastrous? Like I have mentioned before, I come from an extremely right wing but socially controlled (non-libertarian) culture and the factor of strong discipline in the classroom meant that it was difficult to have a disastrous classroom situation.

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        1. I’m willing to believe that you personally never cheated, never brought “shporas” to exams and prepared every day instead of doing a crash preparation during the exam session. 🙂 But I do happen to believe that made you an exception.

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      1. Some people cheated. Somewhat… It was nicely compensated by classes being small and professors learning what each student is capable of during the semester. So professors would question the student until they extracted as high (or as low) grade as student deserved, in their opinion. Exam could easily last five hours.
        I was once told after the exam by the professor that I must have a very stable nervous system.
        Out of 20 students who started together with me only 6 graduated eventually. OK, probably correction has to be taken for political/economical turmoil at that time, but still…
        Nobody cared about retention. If you failed – you failed. There were no professor evaluations by students either.

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        1. Small classes? That’s interesting. We had many huge lectures. Since this was foreign languages, language classes had smaller groups (15-20 people). But the rest were huge. Everybody graduated. I was once expelled, but that was just a way to get me to pay a bribe. 🙂 🙂

          No prof evaluations, of course.

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        2. N. also keeps telling me that in MAI they had real education and worked all day long on their studies. And nobody cheated. I’m sure HE worked, since I know him. But I don’t trust his powers of observations as much as I trust his sincerity. 🙂

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  13. I understand that logic, I’m eternally jealous of my Swedish friends for getting a free education, and I get a major case of green-eyed monstrosity when I see them partying, skipping classes, or spending all of their time at the student pub, especially while I was busting my arse doing work study, classes, and odd jobs in Montana.
    But there were also people in Montana who went to college primarily for the parties, or to join the most popular sororities/fraternities and be at the top of the hierarchy they’d established in high school. I saw similar patterns at Bard College and University of Washington, which are so expensive just looking at the tuition costs on their websites made me dizzy. I attribute that to either some sort of cognitive dissonance, or this strange belief that a college degree of any type guarantees you a job that can pay off your loans.
    This is very absent at UVic though. Probably because our classes are much more challenging and are not kind to slackers.

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  14. I have to say, I notice the following tendency a lot with highly educated Americans: you mention something positive, something good and hopeful, and they immediately start sharing with you some horrifying scenarios how everything might turn out to be super horrible and how the world might just end in fifteen minutes.

    I am yet fully to understand the nature of this phenomenon.

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  15. bloggerclarissa :
    This is how we studied in the Soviet Union and the FSU: https://clarissasblog.com/2011/04/25/funny-story-about-russian-students/
    This is not an isolated case, mind you. It was like that all the time, for everybody.

    Very interesting. It has its parallels in the informality of Zimbabwean administrations, where you can get your interests taken care of if you supply a small financial incentive — but otherwise, probably not.

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      1. Free or close to it. Life still costs money, and books, events, study abroad, etc. U of C had no tuition when I went there, only fees, and they were low; we don’t charge people who do well and graduate on time; I’m for strong state support of state institutions.

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  16. bloggerclarissa :
    I have to say, I notice the following tendency a lot with highly educated Americans: you mention something positive, something good and hopeful, and they immediately start sharing with you some horrifying scenarios how everything might turn out to be super horrible and how the world might just end in fifteen minutes.
    I am yet fully to understand the nature of this phenomenon.

    Philosophical idealism has precarious foundations and if we throw salt over our collective shoulders we might somehow manage to preserve them?

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    1. I think there might be some of that in this attitude. People are trying to ward off the worst by narrating worst-case scenarios.

      There must also be some influence from the puritanical belief that enjoyment is sinful and only suffering is noble. So people pretend to suffer and get scandalized when anybody suggests that they might be justified in experiencing joy.

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      1. “There must also be some influence from the puritanical belief that enjoyment is sinful and only suffering is noble.”

        Puritans tended to be frugal so they probably would have agreed with you about looking to save cost on a good education except it’s ridiculous and shameful for a woman to aspire to let alone hold an academic position. But I do agree that religiously-influenced neuroses of self-depravity and millenialistic gloom-and-doom scenarios have a venerable history among Americans.

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    2. bloggerclarissa :
      I have to say, I notice the following tendency a lot with highly educated Americans: you mention something positive, something good and hopeful, and they immediately start sharing with you some horrifying scenarios how everything might turn out to be super horrible and how the world might just end in fifteen minutes.
      I am yet fully to understand the nature of this phenomenon.

      America is apocalyptic.

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      1. That’s just America baby welcome to it! USA! USA! USA!

        Realanswer: Probably like you said it has something to do with the hold that millenialist, sin-obsessed religion has had here since the arrival of Spanish Catholics and English Puritans.

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  17. On working and saving for college: If 4 years of college costs $40K, which is indeed comparatively low, what are the jobs you can work at with a HS diploma that will allow you to save that much in a reasonable amount of time – and can everyone have one such job?

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      1. *non international, in state students.
        And keep in mind that tuition costs go up every year, faster than inflation, while wages in general are flat for everyone.
        Rightly or wrongly, people think more of someone who is 22 with a newly minted four year college degree than someone who is 32 with the same. I base this on recruiters outright telling me that they wouldn’t have put my name forward for certain jobs based on the year printed on my diploma. I’ve also been told that certain companies would not hire people over 35 for entry level positions in any company, regardless of their resume.

        Still with all of the above, 18k for this yea with room and board is fairly inexpensive

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  18. I just saw the figures today (in a newsletter on the lab worktable – I didn’t get the source but can look for it tomorrow). About 60% of college grads (undergrad) graduate with debts and the average is 25K.

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    1. This sounds a lot more realistic than the #Occupy protesters who stand there with posters saying “I’m 22 and I have $250K in college debt.” How anybody can accumulate $250K in debt by that age is a mystery I will never be able to solve.

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      1. That’s a lot of money for an undergrad, with poor job prospects, and it’s the average. Some may owe 5K, others 100K. The bigger numbers like 250K must result from medical school and law school and other professional schools. I haven’t seen those claims.

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