Part of the fortunate few
That first day of college is burned into my memory. Mom dropped me off, and I can still feel that vague discomfort in realizing I was independent. Perhaps more accurately, I felt alone. Instead of seeing my brother every day, it was my new college roommate — a heavy metal aficionado. Despite his taste for incomprehensible music, we actually got along (I think).
Both of us had the privilege of parents who saved and paid for our college educations. My undergraduate years were financed through various investments in stocks, bonds, and mutual funds. Another way many parents save is through 529 College Savings Plans, which provide tax benefits for a child’s college education. Unfortunately, future college students don’t always have it this easy.
Suffering from rising tuition, fees, and state tax cuts
Americans are in trouble. There’s a confluence of events that’s acting as a perfect storm for adolescents: people save less than ever, tuition costs are on the rise, and state tax revenues for public education are severely constrained.
About 75% of households only have enough in savings to pay their bills for 6 months. A Huffington Post reporter interviewed one person who said,
A single mother of four living in Bangalore, Maine, Norton says she often writes checks for bills without enough money in her bank account to pay them, hoping the check won’t clear until her next paycheck arrives. Between rent, child care and other necessities, Norton says her expenses cost more than she earns, leaving her without a cushion to fall back on in case of emergencies.
Tuition fees are increasing at far greater rates than inflation. Effectively, this is stunting parents’ and future college students’ purchasing power, and leading to nauseating levels of student loan debt. The New York Times found that,
At public four-year colleges, the inflation-adjusted average annual increase has been somewhat higher, thanks mostly to state budget cuts: 2.3 percent (which translates into almost 5 percent a year in nominal terms). At public two-year colleges, also known as community colleges, costs have fallen relative to inflation, at an annual rate of 0.3 percent over the last 20 years.
A caution: these increased tuition rates do not account for greater student loan debt and the possibility of being charged upward of 6.8% active interest to be paid off after graduation. If you account for this, real tuition costs are skyrocketing. This is the burden of students, parents, and our greater society.
The tuition is too high
At a private institution such as Duke University, you’ll be staring at a whopping bill for about $61,404 a year. Just for some perspective, the World Bank suggests that the average per capita income in the United States is $51,749. For four years at Duke, you’ll be staring at about five years of income — in debt.
Maybe you’re wondering why I chose one of the most expensive schools in the country as an example. My simple answer is twofold: 1) Duke University is highly prestigious and well-regarded by both employers and future students; 2) Two of the craziest stories come from this institution.
You won’t believe what college students are doing to make ends meet. For some, desperate times call for desperate measures. The following are 3 real-life examples of students saving and paying for atmospheric tuition costs.
Ken Ilgunas: Walden on Wheels
Ken Ilgunas had finished paying off undergrad loans when he decided to return to Duke for a graduate degree. Before starting the program, he was determined to avoid more students. In his New York Times article, Ken says,
I HAD been accepted into Duke’s graduate liberal studies program, but I couldn’t afford it. I had just paid off my $32,000 undergraduate debt, I was nearly broke, and the prospect of taking out loans was unthinkable. Going back into debt made about as much sense as running out of a burning building just to run into another.
His solution was to buy an older Ford Econoline van for $1,500 and live out of it for the duration of his schooling. Using the library for Internet, rec center for showers, and a camping stove to cook food, Ken successfully went to graduate school without accepting defeat and taking out loans.
Ken utilized his writing skills to pen a beautiful book called, Walden on Wheels. The book focuses on minimalism, living debt free, and his journey at Duke. With national attention, a New York Times article, over 300 (mostly) positive reviews for his book, and even a visit to Letterman, Mr. Ilgunas is an inspiration for vandwellers worldwide. More importantly, he did something truly extreme to avoid student loans and pay for his tuition. It worked.
Belle Knox: Full-time student, part-time pornstar
Belle Knox (her chosen pornstar name) is an 18-year-old student at Duke University, who is studying women’s studies and eventually wants to go to law school. Many of her peers pick up side jobs to pay for some odds and ends amidst piling student loans. Belle decided to take up a different line of work and searched Google for, “How to become a pornstar.”
She’s headline news everywhere. Rolling Stone calls her the “top new adult-film” actress and a “studious college freshman.” Dr. Drew featured her on his show and said he’d be, “chompin’ down on cyanide capsule right now [if I was your father].”
When Belle talks about her pornography experiences she says,
I can say definitively that I have never felt more empowered or happy doing anything else. In a world where women are so often robbed of their choice, I am completely in control of my sexuality.
From there, Belle found a talent agency and started flying across the country — mostly LA — to film scenes on the holidays and school breaks. Each scene filmed equates to about $1,000. After about 61 scenes a year, she can completely pay for her exorbitant tuition demands. She’ll avoid the fearful debt this way.
Steve Stanzak: Finding affordable housing in the library
When you’re staring at around $55-60,000 a year in total costs, you’re bound to get creative. When Steve Stanzak of New York University struggled to find affordable housing in New York City (imagine that!), he decided to go rogue and live in the library basement for 8 months.
USAToday interviewed him and they found that,
…He began spending six hours a night in the sub-basement of Bobst Library at the beginning of the academic year after he was unable to pay a $1,000 housing deposit.
He slept on four library chairs and carried vital belongings — a laptop computer, books, clothes — in his backpack. He kept other items, like toiletries and clothing, in storage lockers.
Here’s the crazy part: they caught him because he used an online journal to catalogue his journey. Imagine if they never caught him?! How long could he have managed — putting four chairs together in the place of a bed?
In a strange twist of fate, Steve was rewarded for his library dwelling when NYU offered him a free dorm room. Success!
What’s reasonable when tuition costs are unbearable?
When I searched Google for “ways to pay for college,” I got some fishy results (i.e., Forbes, Fiscal Times, and Huffington Post). Frankly, none of the articles actually help people pay for college. Most just regurgitate old information about getting financial aid (aka, student loans). The worst is the Huffington Post article, which suggests paying for college with “cash” (they must be getting creative to rank higher in searches). I would imagine most people understand that cash is a monetary tool for paying bills. Not sure who’s benefitting from that horrible advice!
I remember feeling hopeless to do anything about my student loans prior to starting Frugaling. The debt piled higher and higher — without escape or end. When I finally faced this reality, I suddenly saw a way out.
It’s easy to get desperate when you see interest-bearing accounts metastasize with ever-daunting sums. Ken Ilgunas, Belle Knox, and Steve Stanzak are three people that used this extreme fear of student loans to prevent them from falling prey to them. Question their legality, morality, and safety as much as you want, the three of them found a way to make their educational dreams a reality.
Significant student loan debt is a scary place, and it seems like these three reacted in powerful ways to stem their deficits. But it makes me wonder, is it even worth it at some point? When is a graduate degree, while in a Ford van worth it? When is it worth becoming a sex worker (aka, pornstar)?
Their stories are hard to hear though. These are the most motivated, enterprising, and smart people in our country and they’re struggling to get a top-notch education. It makes me wonder if we are making it too difficult for people to attain this level of education – preventing new leaders from finding success in our society.
This is just the start, too. As tax revenues continue to fall for public education and social inequality rises, stories like this will only increase. The United States seems to be leaving our future generation in the dust. You can’t pay for a college education with a couple simple part-time jobs over the summer. Those days are long gone.
How can you lead when you’re swimming in debt and held back from the freedom to become more than just a number to a lender?