College Degrees That Leave You With DEBT FOR LIFE

by Darwin on July 4, 2011

debt slave

A few weeks ago, I published an article that pissed off a lot of people.  Well, Communications major really.  It was titled, “A Question for All You Communications Majors“.  In retrospect, the article I wrote wasn’t really the message I intended to convey.  What started off as a post on the ramifications of taking on tons of debt to attend a pricey college only to graduate with a low-paying degree somehow meandered into a rip on a particular major, which incidentally, is more in the middle of the pay scale as opposed to a lot of other majors that show up in this research actually.  But my initial thinking going in was a commentary on the constant mainstream media accounts of these kids who go into a pricey college and choose a degree with really no prospect of ever paying off that debt in a reasonable timeframe.

So, after the fact, CNN ran a series on young Americans who took on seemingly massive amounts of debt only to find it virtually impossible to ever pay it back primarily due to the major they chose.

Here are some of the individuals showcased:

  • $72,800 Debt, Master’s in public health from University of South Carolina; Bachelor’s in biology from Clemson University… working for minimum wage.
  • $82,000 Debt, Master’s in Health Science from Chatham University; Bachelor’s in psychology from Temple University …doing contract work for $19 an hour.
  • $140,000 Debt, Bachelor’s in political science and international development from Tulane University… “Working at a non-profit and not making much money”
  • $240,000 Debt, Master’s in Social Work from Boston College, Bachelor’s in Sociology from University of California, Santa Cruz …came to the realization he will NEVER be able to afford children.

This last one takes the cake by far.  $240K?  That’s a friggin house!  This guy traded a house for a degree in Social Work.  I’m not knocking social work.  But he could have learned the same skills at a state college or even a community college start for probably 15-25% of that.  Does having a marquee college name land you a “better” social work job?  I dunno.  I tend to think maybe if you want to be the lead researcher in a major biotech, a PhD from MIT or Harvard goes further than a state school, but social work?  I feel bad for the guy, I really do.  He’s gotta live with a lifetime of disappointment because of a poor decision he made (or his parents and/or guidance counselor made) as a kid. Even with subsidized Stafford loans his only option would be some sort of student loan forgiveness.  But it doesn’t have to be that way with the current generation of teenagers.

The message is simple.  Parents and kids need to have a realistic, pragmatic discussion about who’s paying, what that degree is going to cost, and what kind of salary (and hence debt-payment assumptions) that type of degree can common upon graduation.  They then need to reinforce that if Johnny really wants to read poetry and he really wants to go to that $45,000/year private school, Johnny’s going to be working 2 jobs for the rest of his life – one as a poet and one as a bartender nights and weekends.  Johnny will be a debt slave to private student loans for life because of that decision.

That’s all I’m sayin’.

Old post on Communications majors?  Off point and criticism rightly deserved.

This post?  Wake-up Call.

There are a lot of articles in the mainstream media now about how there’s a “college bubble” and that kids shouldn’t go to college because it’s not worth it.  That’s crap.  Sure, if you learn a trade or grow up in the family business, perhaps you’re better off skipping college and the debt that comes with it but that’s not most Americans.  Kids shouldn’t go to expensive schools and major in a discipline that pays a very low wage upon graduation unless they’re independently wealthy.  Parents and guidance counselors should be reinforcing the ramifications of this decision that gets made when a kid is 17 but they’re stuck with for life.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Andrea @SoOverDebt July 4, 2011 at 5:16 pm

I have a Masters of Social Work, and I can tell you that what school you go to doesn’t really matter. All programs are accredited by the same body, which means the curricula across schools are basically the same. What really matters is whether you pass the licensure exam, and no one asks you where you went to school before they swipe your credit card for the exam fee.

While community college isn’t an option for social work (you actually have to have a bachelors or masters from an accredited school to call yourself a social worker), there are PLENTY of programs that are much cheaper. My BSW is from a private (aka expensive) school and I still only finished with about $40k in student loans for both degrees.

The one thing no high school guidance counselor or college admissions counselor will teach you is to look at the cost of your degree vs. the money you can earn with that degree. In my current supervisory position (with 6 years of experience), I don’t make enough in a year to pay off my loans. And that’s the most depressing feeling you can take away from college – feeling trapped by a mountain of student debt.


Darwin July 5, 2011 at 8:22 am

Thanks for your story, and confirming my assertion that pedigree doesn’t matter. I’m sorry to hear about the trouble you’re having with your loans.


Bret @ Hope to Prosper July 11, 2011 at 5:40 pm


My cousin also has a Master in Social Work and she still lives with her parents in her high 30s, with a teenage son. She is a wonderful person and believes very strongly in what she is doing. But, she is paying a high price to do it.



Dave @ Money In The 20s July 4, 2011 at 8:00 pm

I think the unfortunate thing is that guidance counselors in high schools aren’t really doing a good job. I know in my high school they were useless. Maybe I am generalizing the entire group, but that is how I feel based on my experience with guidance counselors.

I can’t imagine being in 240k of debt after grad school with limited job and income prospects. That said, I plan to get to start an MBA program in the next year and am looking at state school that would cost around $60k total and a highly ranked private school that would cost around $110k total. In my particular function, the highly ranked private school’s reputation is worth the extra $50k as it will pay for itself in a short time.

In my opinion, it is OK to take on the student loans but they have to be for the right reasons and if you will be in a field that pays well.


Darwin July 5, 2011 at 8:23 am

I’m not sure what my guidance counselor did. I’m OK career-wise, but the meeting when like this: I asked which major makes the most money. He replied Chemical Engineering. So I majored in that. I wonder how the meetings went for other kids.


Moneycone July 4, 2011 at 10:58 pm

Treat education as you would with any other investment. If the returns don’t justify the capital, you need to try a different approach.


Darwin July 5, 2011 at 8:23 am

Good way to put it.


JT July 4, 2011 at 11:04 pm

I didn’t think your first post was that bad; I probably would have said worse. It’s what happens when you’re completely truthful about an issue. What made it bad, in my view, is that you majored in engineering. Engineers think every major is worthless, and I’ve found arrogance to run thick with engineering. Not saying that you were at all arrogant in that post–not at all, I don’t think–but you related the concept to your experience with com students kind of like how com students probably related to their experience with engineering students, if that makes any sense.

I’m going to school cheap. Fact of the matter is that my GPA prevented me from getting into a decent school, and no one gives a **** about SAT scores. (Aptitude tests? What do those measure!) So, for me, a less than average state school it was.

So that limits what I want to do a little bit, especially since I want to get into finance. I’m further limited by my own inability to grasp anything else other than finance, so I couldn’t do the popular engineering to finance twist. Double screwed.

I’ll get my finance degree and move on. Clearly, I’m not getting into a big Wall St. bank. I like the idea of it, but not sure I’d like the work of it. I like small cities and the idea of having some time left over at the end of the week. Worst that happens for me is that I open a small asset management business for people who I went to school with who would be more than willing to trust me with every dollar they ever earned.

That’s a good enough worst case scenario, as far as I see it. Plus, I’ll graduate with zero debt, and plenty of cash. I may have screwed up back in HS, but I can’t change it now. Won’t have as many opportunities, or opportunities with as high of ceilings, but I’ll be able to pick exactly the opportunity I want to take because I’ll have the flexibility (no forever on my balance sheet student loan debt) to do so.


JT July 4, 2011 at 11:06 pm

P.S. – If any HS students read this post, make sure your GPA is awesome. I know of more than a few top 20 b-schools that take students with below average SAT scores if their GPA is right. The reverse (low GPA, high SAT) isn’t true.


Darwin July 5, 2011 at 8:24 am

You’ll do great with finance; the fact that you’re blogging at your age in this space? You’ll know more than most MBAs by the time you get there!


Financial Samurai July 4, 2011 at 11:42 pm

$240K is a shocker! Donno what that person is thinking. Maybe social workers are getting paid bank now?


youngandthrifty July 5, 2011 at 3:07 am

Hey Sam, I don’t think Social Workers are getting paid bank, unfortunately!

Here in Canada, they make about $58,000 to maybe $65,000? More if you have a Masters degree.

I would cry if I was $240,000 in debt and I haven’t even gotten a job. Just cry.


Darwin July 5, 2011 at 8:26 am

Wow, over 60K is more than I would have even envisioned; I assume after 10 or more years in the job? Or is that starting?


Sass July 5, 2011 at 8:53 am

This article was very timely for me, as my daughter will be heading off to college in a year. Right now her head is filled with dreams of a television/film production major. The fact that it is definitely a feast or famine type major is not entering her reality at this time. So, I’ve basically laid it down like this: the first year or so she will ONLY take core curriculum classes. I basically explained it like this: I changed my “major” FOUR times before I settled on education — and guess who is not currently teaching? So, we have agreed that after she gets a better feel for “what’s out there”, she can then decide on a major — HOWEVER, I will not attempt to assist in the funding of an education for a major that will leave her dependent on me for the 10 – 15 years following graduation. We’re still working through the logistics and details, but this is where we currently stand.


Jeff @ Sustainable life blog July 5, 2011 at 5:04 pm

I saw that thing on cnn as well and couldnt believe it – What were they thinking!? Obviously, they werent, and have debt enough to prove it. If they got what they would probably consider a “good” job (making 55k/year) it would take them 5 years to pay off all debt, but to do it they’d have to forgo eating, drinking and buying anything at all!


Bankruptcy Ben July 5, 2011 at 10:52 pm

I paid 28k for a Dietetics degree that I don’t use any more. Currently doing my MBA major finance and thankfully my employer is paying so WOOO. I don’t think universities generally calculate the NPV of your degree for you. You think they would to see if “lending” you the money for the degree is a good idea.


Ben @ Debt Consolidation Nation July 5, 2011 at 10:54 pm

Maybe the Net Present Value of your degree should come on the application materials so that people entering into study are better informed?


101 Centavos July 6, 2011 at 7:14 am

The intention of your first article was sound, even if it ticked off some communication majors. Going heavily into debt for a college education has low-percentage chances of success. Messages in the mainstream media calling college an “investment” don’t help either.


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