Wright Leaning: How to go to college without debt, and graduate with a great job

OPINION – I’d like to focus on something in which we can actually control the outcome: paying for a college education and navigating the college path into the job market.

Over the past few years I have heard more and more frequently that high school graduates would be wise to find a noncollege path. While I agree that there are better paths for some kids, including apprenticeships and trade techs, I propose that the two most-cited reasons to forego college are obstacles that can be overcome: the huge debt students will incur and the current challenging job market for recent college graduates. While plausible, these need not be so.

College was a very good thing for me and I graduated only two years ago – during the recession. It took me five and a half years across three different schools – BYU, College of Eastern Utah (now Utah State University, Eastern), and Southern Utah University  – to get my degree in engineering, but I graduated completely debt free with a great Mechanical Engineering job lined up that I am still enjoying.

I therefore draw from my own recent experience when I propose that the vast majority of people who so desire can graduate with a bachelor’s degree without incurring any debt and can subsequently find an acceptable job. I want to help as many people as possible to achieve this goal.

According to “The Project on Student Debt” website, “two-thirds of college seniors who graduated in 2011 had student loan debt, with an average of $26,600 per borrower” and the average Utah borrower had the lowest of any state at $17,227.

The most critical things I saw in students that lent to their success were their  attitude and their drive. Those that believed they could graduate debt free and were driven to work hard to do so almost always accomplished that goal. And those that picked up work experience all along the way and put a lot of time, effort and energy into finding gainful employment were able to find an at least acceptable job, if not an incredible career.

I can and will point out a few specific things that they did to achieve this, but you have to be willing to drop the idea that college is a four-year party and replace it with a willness to work hard for four to six years while you invest in your future.

Refuse to borrow money

This has to be a hard set rule. You’ll have to take the time to plan things out in advance, and you have to have a “Plan B” for how to deal with the unexpected things that will happen. If you aren’t totally sold on hard work and sacrifice while you’re in college in order to have things be much easier afterwards, you’ll almost certainly find yourself paying off college debt for a long time to come.

Work part-time during the school year

I know there are a lot of things going on. You’re taking a lot of classes, and you want to also be able to enjoy this new experience and have some fun while you’re at it. You’ll also probably have people tell you that you don’t have time to work during the school year.

I remember being shocked in my Intro to Engineering class when my professor told us that we should quit our jobs because we won’t be able to keep up with school and a job at the same time. However, my experience and multiple studies I’ve seen over the years say that the opposite is true. Plus, most students just can’t afford to not work.

I recommend 15-20 work hours per week with 10 being the bare minimum. Also plan on working extra during spring and Christmas break – since most college students want to take that time off, it’s usually pretty easy to pick up extra shifts.

Work 40-60 hours per week during the summer

The summer after I graduated from high school I couldn’t find a full-time job. So, I did the next best thing and I worked three part-time jobs. Early on I was working for minimum wage, but I was able to make more as I went along and I gained experience and knowledge.

Scholarships and financial aid

I’m sure you’re familiar with this one so I won’t say too much here, but one thing I want to hit on that many people don’t understand is what I call the “freshman clean slate.” When you are in high school and you apply for scholarships they look at your ACT score and your high school GPA, but after your freshman year of college you get to clean all that off your slate. In other words, if your high school GPA and ACT score weren’t good enough to get you a scholarship your freshman year, then all you have to do is work really hard and get a great GPA during your freshman year and re-apply to get those scholarships for your sophomore year. They will no longer care what your high school GPA and ACT score were.

Those are probably the biggest financial things; however, if you see that those might not be enough for you there are several other things you can also do to improve your situation:

•  Start saving money now, don’t wait until tomorrow.

•  Attend the local college and live at home; and if this isn’t an option, get a lot of roommates; my first year of college there were six of us sharing an apartment. It can get pretty cheap when you split rent and utilities six ways.

•  Learn to budget better and cut out anything you don’t absolutely need. I quickly learned that I can survive off $20-30 per week for food, and since I was so busy with school and work I didn’t feel as much of a need to blow money on entertainment.

• Find small income sources.  For example, I had several friends who got paid to donate plasma a couple of times a week.

• Half-time student is a viable option.  When all of the above does not suffice, there is always the option of going to school half-time and working 30-40 hours per week during the school year; I actually had several friends that used that strategy very successfully and built up a nice resumé while they were going through school.

Finding the Perfect job After Graduation

The other frequently cited problem many now raise in evaluating the merits of college is that it is currently much more difficult than it used to be for a recent college graduate, with no work experience, to find the type of job that they are hoping to find. In fact, a recent study shows that “half of college grads can’t find full-time work.”

The word “after” is half of the problem for many. Getting yourself into the best job possible is not something that you should wait until graduation to do. From my experience, those who got as much experience as possible as early as possible and those who put in a lot of time every year looking for the next opportunity are the ones who found a good job.

During my second year of college, I started tutoring junior high students who were struggling with their math and science classes. That summer I found a job doing manual labor, but working around engineers, from whom I was able to learn quite a bit through watching them and asking questions. The next school year I worked in the math lab at my school. And I found an engineering internship each of my last 3 summers and worked for different professors during two of the school years.

Each of those jobs made it easier for me to get the next opportunity and I had to work hard, spending time every day for weeks or months, to find almost all of them. In the end, one of the engineers I was working with in an internship during my last semester gave me the recommendation I needed to get an interview with Reid Ashman Manufacturing.

College is not the fairy godmother

College can’t be equated to a fairy godmother who waves her wand and fixes all your problems. College is hard work and sacrifice that can be well worth it in the long run.


A follow-up to this article has been written and can be found here.


Follow up on Fiscal “Cliff” Huxtable and White House petition

In my last two articles, I discussed the difficulties with our country’s current fiscal mess and promised to send my recommendation to Orrin Hatch, Mike Lee, and Chris Stewart as well as post it on President Obama’s “We the People” website.

I have emailed all three of my representatives and the plan is up as a petition on the “We the People” website. The petition will stay up until March 7. If 150 go here and sign it, then it will become publicly viewable. If 100,000 people sign it before March 7 then the Obama Administration will review it and issue an official response.

Leo Wright is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his own and not representative of St. George News.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews @LeoWright13

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.

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1 Comment

  • electedface February 7, 2013 at 10:36 am

    Student debt is stunting the growth of the economy. Student loans have increased by 500% over past decade. As the next generation graduates from college, they are plagued by insurmountable debt that places demands on their income, limiting their ability to spend their earnings in ways that stimulate the economy.


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