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Some say bypassing a higher education is smarter than paying for a degree

Georgetown's estimated expenses for incoming freshmen is $56,660 for 2010-11.
Georgetown's estimated expenses for incoming freshmen is $56,660 for 2010-11. (Astrid Riecken - For The Washington Post)

On top of that, you don't know how big a boatload it'll be. For many college students, four years of anticipated tuition payments grows to five years or six -- or more. Government statistics show just 57 percent of full-time college students get their bachelor's degrees in six or fewer years.

And the rest . . . don't.

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In her youth, Toni Reinhart, 55, owner of Comfort Keepers Reston, a licensed home-care agency in Northern Virginia, abandoned hopes of completing a business degree at George Mason University. There was that C in accounting, and then trigonometry. . . .

"My problem was not being able to put the time in to learn things I wasn't interested in," she says.

Has dropping out held her back?

"Oh sure," says Reinhart, a self-described late-bloomer. "But maybe that's good. Maybe it held me back from things I shouldn't have been doing anyway."

Now she manages 56 employees and in recent years hit the million-dollar mark in gross revenue.

"I understand the case for finishing, because you've proven you can stick with something," she says. "But wouldn't it be nice if we did have another path that didn't put people in debt for . . . $100,000? Isn't there another way to instill those kinds of lessons in people that would be cheaper?"

Nelson Cortez, 20, wishes there were. The Napa resident starts his third year this month at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He's received state grants and works 15 hours a week while school is in session, but with the loans he's taken out, he estimates he's already about $25,000 in debt. This is why, when the California Board of Regents last year announced a 32 percent increase in fees, he joined protests that galvanized students around the state -- and set off similar protests around the country.

Cortez helped shut down the Santa Cruz campus and traveled to the District to rally outside the U.S. Capitol. (On Oct. 2, students will demonstrate on the Mall for affordable education as part of the One Nation march, organized by civil rights and youth groups and unions.)

"Rent was due yesterday, and I was $20 short, and I'm running around the house looking for $20," Cortez says. His money problems have caused him to question whether he's made the right decision: "Am I going to be able to afford it, should I take a semester off? . . . I do have in the back of my mind, would it be better not to have those loans and just work?"

According to the Education Department, between 1997-98 and 2007-08, prices for undergraduate tuition, room and board at public institutions of higher education rose by 30 percent, and prices at private institutions rose by 23 percent -- after adjustments for inflation. "The reason colleges have been getting away with raising their fees so much is that loans allow parents to tough it out," Vedder says.

Federal government moves, such as tuition tax credits, allow those paying college costs to subtract a certain amount from their tax bills. But it does little to alleviate the financial burden, Vedder says, adding that it gives colleges an excuse to raise costs further.

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The cost of college is putting the financial screws to an entire generation, say student activists.

"I think it's absolutely despicable that students are asked to pay that much," says Lindsay McCluskey, president of the United States Student Association. "In terms of public education, you can't even call that public when students are taking out an average of $25,000 to complete college and then are paying off student loan debt until they're 50 or 60 years old."

A recent graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she majored in anthropology, McCluskey is paying down a $20,000 student loan. She thinks it will probably take her a decade to dig out of that hole -- while the balance is accumulating interest -- because she can't afford to make more than the minimum monthly payments.

"For my generation," McCluskey, 23, says, "that loan debt is taking the place of the house we could be buying or a number of other investments we could be making in our lives. The loan debt just sucks a lot of that out."

Now consider Jeremiah Stone, 25. The graduate of Rockville's Thomas S. Wootton High School is living in Paris, pursuing a drool-worthy international career as a chef. After high school, he took a job as a barback in a Houston's Restaurant, worked up to kitchen assistant, took a nine-month cooking course at the French Culinary Institute in New York and finally landed in France, where he has freelanced as a chef throughout the country. Eventually he hopes to open his own restaurant in New York.

"People I meet for the first time, they're always saying, 'Oh, if I had another career, I'd be a pastry chef instead of becoming a lawyer,' " Stone says. In the eyes of some of his friends, he says, he's become emblematic of simply doing what you love. In his case, it turns out that not following the herd was the best investment of all.

Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.

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