'Taking on Student Loan Debt Is a CHOICE'

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A refreshing reader dissent from Kirsten Campbell:

I know this is an Unpopular Opinion, but I’m tired of hearing about people’s student loan debt. I keep seeing articles about it cropping up on The Atlantic and it has become increasingly irritating.

I’m Canadian, and I went to university in the same city I grew up in so I would avoid student loan debt. My parents didn’t pay a dime towards my degree or the degrees of my two siblings. We always knew they weren’t contributing; it wasn’t a secret that they weren’t paying for our schooling. As such, in grade 10, I started tutoring ESL and later worked retail to save money for school.

While in school I typically tutored 4-10 p.m. every weeknight, then on weekends I worked retail. In the summer, I usually ended up working more retail because my tutoring kids were away or wanted a break. When I got home from tutoring at 10 p.m. each night, I made myself dinner and then started my own homework and assignments. (Yes, after helping other people with theirs, I wasn’t terribly motivated when it came to my own work.)

I worked like a dog. I’ve never worked so hard in my life, but university was expensive, I had to buy a used car to get myself there and pay for insurance, gas, food, clothing etc (except rent) all by myself.

Of course I desperately wanted the “university life” that I saw on TV: brick buildings, living on campus, and fun parties every weekend. But I couldn’t participate because I was living at home and rushing from my last class (4-5 courses a semester) to get to my tutoring on time. I sacrificed and gave up every fun or interesting part of university life in order to ensure that I graduated with no debt.

Many nights while doing my own homework at 2 a.m., I wondered if I could do it all. Then I remembered I had no choice. Dropping out wasn’t an option.

So I buckled down and pushed through five years of university to get a double major without owning anyone a penny. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I’m sure glad I did it.

As such, I’m tired to hearing about everyone’s student loan debt. Taking on student loans is a CHOICE. I chose to sacrifice to make my future better. Those who took on loans in order to have fun in university are buried by debt and I’m tired of hearing from them. No one forced them to take on loans. No one forced them to move away from home and live on campus. They made their choice so now they must live with it.

I’m 12 years out of undergrad and still paying off thousands in student loans, and that’s with two parents and a step-parent paying most of my tuition. But Kirsten’s right; that was totally my choice, and personally I can’t complain. If you think she’s off base, however, drop us a note and I’ll add. Update from a reader living in New York, Peter Zdanowicz:

I also went to university in Canada. You cannot compare paying for a college education in the U.S. to funding one in Canada. Right now undergrad tuition to one of the best schools in Canada (university of Toronto) is $6,040 CDN, or about $5,000 USD. And there is no in-state / out-of-state qualification; that price is what all Canadians would pay.

A Canadian can certainly pay for most, if not all, of his or her tuition with after-school work and summer jobs. I too worked in restaurants and painted houses to pay for school. I had enough left over to pay rent and even buy some furniture.

Tuition in Canada is heavily subsidized by the government, which makes is relatively affordable. In Canada the calculus of paying for higher education is much more about choice. You can go to almost any university in Canada and pay $5,000 to $7,000 in tuition. Cost is usually not a barrier to higher education. I got to choose the school that best suited to my needs. That’s a real choice.

Another reader, Doug, is on the same page as Peter:

Kirsten is wrong. I too am Canadian, and I put myself through university with a minimum of debt. It is much, much, cheaper to go to a good university (in my case Simon Fraser University) than it is in the U.S. You simply can not compare the two. I don’t know when she went to university or which one. I graduated in 1976 with $5K in loans—about $21K in today’s dollars, a roughly four-fold increase, and today the cost has gone up by about four times as well.

The University of British Columbia is one of Canada’s—and the world’s—premier universities. You can see its pricing here and you’ll notice that except for a few specialty programs, most undergraduate disciplines are in the $6K/year for a full course load. What are the costs in the U.S. for an undergraduate arts/science degree at a world class university for a U.S. citizen? A quick search showed me it was at likely to be at least $20K/year and three to four times that for one of the Ivies. You aren’t going to save that kind of money by tutoring and working a (likely minimum wage) part-time job or two while taking a full course load, even if you have the luxury of living at home with your parents for free.  

Kirsten responds:

My degree was the most expensive of all programs offered at my university, which I should have mentioned. All in all I paid about $60k for tuition. That’s a lot no matter where you’re from, especially when you’re living in the most expensive city in Canada. Now add in a car, gas, insurance, parking, random university fees that always crop up, car repairs, food etc etc and it doesn’t look so cheap.

In Canada, scholarships are a lot harder to come by than a lot of other countries (at least I didn’t qualify!). Americans complain about the high cost of their post secondary, but we are forgetting to mention how cheap the cost of living is in most U.S. cities (I’m not counting places like the Bay Area). Had I chosen to live on campus and get a meal plan, my university education would easily have topped $100k.

My point is that people have choices—choices NOT to sign up for thousands upon thousands of dollars in student loans because they don’t want to commute to a local university instead. Yes, that would mean giving up the “university dream” and working while attending school.

While I was at university, a classmate of mine didn’t work a single day she attended school. Instead she got loan after loan after loan. Before I lost track of her in third year she was $50k in debt with no clue how to pay it back. I still wonder about her and how she sleeps at night with that albatross around her neck. We graduated in 2008, which was the Great Recession and no one was getting jobs after grad. That’s another story though.

My parents raised us with the philosophy of “If you can’t afford it, you don’t get it,” and it’s a great motto to live by. If I couldn’t afford university, then I wasn’t going. If you can’t afford to attend an out-of-state school, then you’re not going. It’s really that simple.

That’s also why I started saving money for school while I was in grade 10. It’s not a surprise that school crops up at the end of grade 12, so why are so many students shocked when it does?

My brother completed his PhD at our local university when he should have been at an Ivy League school. He didn’t go because he couldn’t afford it and he didn’t want to be saddled with six-figure debt. He has built an amazing career so far which proves he didn’t suffer by staying in province and not living the “university dream.” He graduated with no debt.

The pressure to live the dream is what pushes a lot of students into signing up for debt they don’t even understand. I read a lot of “I had no idea what I was doing” or “I had no clue how long it would take to pay back” from students with loans—which again points to choice. They chose to be ostriches and bury their heads in the sand instead of educating themselves on what their signature on that paper means. They chose not to start early and work in high school or delay school by a year to save up more money. For the vast majority of people, no one put a gun to their head to sign up for loans; it was their choice. The frat party ends eventually and you’re stuck footing the bill one way or another. Just because your choice to sign up for loans has now come back to haunt you, that doesn’t mean the rest of us need to hear about it anymore.