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Paying for College

Can You Put a Price on Education?

Attending college is an economic decision as well as an educational one. Find the right balance to get the best schooling without breaking the bank.

Your column on two young men who chose different paths to college was not my favorite because you made it seem as if the first young man was morally inferior because he "had" to have a first-rate college experience. What about the notion that education is a worthwhile end in itself, not just a means to make a buck?

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Of course, we all admire the second young man for making the most of what he had. But we also suspect that he will regret missing out on an important life experience.

I believe that how we spend our money should reflect what we value most in life. And many of us highly value education. I'm proud and glad that was the choice that my daughter made, too.

I certainly sympathize with your sentiments about education being a worthwhile end in itself. But I don't think you can conclude that the first young man had a first-rate college experience because he attended an expensive, "name" school (and owes $100,000 in student loans), and the second young man somehow missed out because he attended a community college and then transferred to a state university. That smacks of educational elitism. And I'll wager that the second young man, who graduated with just $9,000 in debt, would disagree with you.

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Like it or not, attending college today is an economic decision as well as an educational one. Students and their families need to balance a lot of factors in order to get the best possible education without breaking the bank.

Paying your own way

I appreciated your column on how students paid for their own education. It always gets under my skin when people assume that parents will foot the bill. In my house (and in my hometown, for that matter), that just wasn't the reality. There were six children in my family, my dad was a high school teacher, and my mom stayed home with us kids. My parents encouraged us to save money and to get good grades for scholarships because we would be on our own.

I didn't get a scholarship. So how did I pay for school? Hard work! I saved enough working as a grocery bagger in high school to cover my first semester's tuition. I attended college year-round and graduated in three years. I didn't own a money-sucking car.

And I worked part-time on campus: cleaning toilets at the basketball arena (honestly, the most fun job I ever had), working as a secretary in a campus office and working various jobs on the student newspaper. All told, I graduated with only $9,000 in debt, which I paid off in three years, and priceless experience. For me, it was a personal triumph.

My thanks to my Kiplinger colleague, Erin Burt, for sharing her personal triumph. For more advice tailored to young adults, check out her Starting Out column.

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