Thinking Carefully About Student Debt: Some Basic Considerations

How Can We Think Carefully About Student Debt? 

College can be expensive. Students and their parents are often forced to make difficult decisions on borrowing money—and this can cause a lot of angst. So there’s a big question: to loan, or not to loan? 
There is no need to qualify the problem of debt in the US. Consumer debt has not only become a way of life but a major problem for so many Americans. It’s also clear that college debt causes a similar problem. What’s not clear is how parents and students looking for an education should think of debt—especially from a biblical perspective. 
Generation X was likely the first generation to take on the massive college loans that are now normal. And as they start sending their own kids to college, this puts everyone in an interesting position. Now Gen X is coming to terms with their decisions of 20-some years ago. Many Gen Xers signed pieces of paper they barely understood leading to massive loans and often incomes that were far too meager to make repayment manageable. When they look at college for their kids, many ask one big question they might not have considered themselves: what does it cost? Now, many are opposed (in some cases, even morally) to borrowing money for college.
Thus, a faulty dilemma has emerged: either one goes deeply, insouciantly, into debt; or one accepts no college debt—not one penny. There may be a third option that does not offer either bliss-is-ignorance or self-assurance benefits, but may be (in the end) more honest, satisfying, and biblical.

Not all debt is the same

To borrow money for a home, an education, a boat, a car, a watch, or a cell phone are all very different things. Each serves a different purpose, and while it would be hard to convince most people that debt is a very good thing or the ideal situation, one should admit this: boat debt and house debt can be two very different things. Not to make essential distinctions is unwise. 

Not all debt-holders are the same

When some from Gen X signed school loan papers, they were ignorant of the ramifications. Those who are fully aware of what loans are, the terms, the repayment options, and lifestyle ramifications (as best as a young person can be) are not in the same scenario as those who fall blindly into debt. A person with a clear plan who borrows money with a life mission to pay it off as soon as she graduates—in as short a time as possible—is different from the one who borrows without careful consideration. 

Not all college educations are the same

A biblical education is different from what one receives at community college. A transformative four-year education at a biblical university, in a biblical community, under committed Christians equipped with a deep worldview and biblical integration is a unique mission and purpose rarely repeated in the vast majority of colleges and universities.
This is not to say that no good educational opportunities exist outside of biblical universities. What this does say is this: the purposes and outcomes of a college education are not all the same. One must carefully answer this question: What is the purpose of a university education? The answer will have deep consequences, for if the purpose is simply to get a credential, perhaps the school selected is less important. But if the purpose is something much larger and formational, a biblical education may be considered far more valuable.

Not all families are the same

There are families whose children are not yet ready to leave “the nest” and for whom a less expensive college option, and even commuting, are a welcomed fit. But there are also families who fear gravely for a son or daughter who is not off alone immediately following high school.  For some, the farther the better, and while it is true that there are a variety of ways and options for a young person to “get away” (and some are cheaper than others), many families may rightly conclude that this is simply the best thing for their child, and the only way for this to happen is to borrow at least some money toward the cost of a four-year transformative experience.
Consider a family with a son who is finishing high school. He’s “climbing the walls,” so ready for his independence, to face the world on his own, to learn, to grow, to prepare and explore for the future. Is this not the kind of independent, gritty young person the world is clamoring for today? Would this family be the wiser to tell such a one, “You will be staying in your room and going to the local community college because college debt is bad”?  It would seem that the world has greater need for such leaders (who quickly and aggressively pay off their loans with the same pluck that brought them forth from their parents’ basements) than those who make college debt aversion their chief end.

Just what is the chief end of man?

This is the final and most central point. Why were humans created? What is our main purpose? Whether in tithing or giving, thoughts and behaviors around money, or the question of whether or not we borrow money for college, our main purpose in life as Christians is not to be so well-heeled that we give generously or to always be debt-free (though those are both good aims). Our main purpose is not even to position ourselves for success—financially, professionally, or otherwise.
No, as has been stated long ago, we were created “to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Or to quote an even more pastoral response, “to be wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.” 
The pursuit of being debt-free is a good thing, and Christians should carefully examine all aspects of their behavior around tithing, money, and college debt—indeed, they should “work out their salvation with fear and trembling.” But to allow a principle of avoiding loans to become the paramount purpose propelling one’s action is to disorder the purpose of the Christian life. That will have far more tragic eternal consequences than any paperwork arriving, post-graduation, from Sallie Mae. We would do well to recall that we serve a sovereign God who owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” and that we ought to make choices—carefully and humbly—as pilgrims and sojourners with an eye not chiefly on this life, but on the next.

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