8-2-3-2. I entered my PIN, but the ATM replied: "You have insufficient funds."
And that was a bummer, because it was 6:30 p.m. and I was starving. But my attempt to withdraw $20 had exceeded my $6 balance. So I borrowed $5 from my business law professor and bought the cheapest burger at the on-campus Burger King.
This crisis took place more than a decade ago at the University of Texas. As the first in my family to get a U.S. college education, I carried the burden of setting a good example for my loved ones. And going back to that awkward encounter with the ATM, I recall how, after a moment of self-loathing, I snapped out of it and remembered my "first in the family" status.
I resolved to make it, no matter what.
The art of bootstrapping
To this fall's incoming class of freshmen, college is an obstacle course they have to overcome, using their wits and limited resources. So, if you're a member of the incoming class -- or the parent paying for that privilege, my advice as a writer who covers these issues is that you need to be entrepreneurial.
Think outside the box, and be creative in solving problems that textbooks don't cover and teachers won't talk about.
You also need to learn from your hardships. It will be during those dark days -- those poignant moments when your soul leaves bloody footprints in the snow -- when you'll find out what you're willing to sacrifice for. Embrace it.
The word "passion" gets thrown around a lot - like tomato sauce on pasta. Its Latin roots actually mean “to suffer, to endure.” What do you love that you’ll endure?
College, and in particular your classics and liberal arts courses, will help you discover your calling and your truth. They will broaden your horizon and immunize you from the noise and nonsense. The more you learn, the more you'll find you have yet to know. And this cycle will repeat itself as you tumble down the rabbit hole of more knowledge and more wisdom and more perspective.
None of this is free, however.
To pay for tuition, stay focused on the cash you'll need for your journey. It won't always be in your wallet's best interest to follow -- like sheep -- the static guide of a bureaucrat advising you on this and that. Look at your predecessors. More than 40 percent of borrowers are behind on their student loan payments, and more than one in ten are 90 days past due on $1.23 trillion in outstanding school debt.
Some advice, huh?
Prudence says that having $50,000 in debt at 22 years old is insane. But, if you allow them, the bureaucrat and his or her lenders will loan you an egregious amount, despite knowing that through that action, you may end up teetering on a fiscal cliff. And with the passage of many blue moons, the IRS will effectively act as those lenders' collection agency, armed with the full power of the law, since most school debt isguaranteed by the federal gubment (no, that's not a typo).
Paying for college without becoming leveraged to the hilt
The bureaucrat's job is safe, and he or she won't get fired for injecting steroids into student loan programs. Some bureaucrats may even get rewarded for improving student access to financial aid.
Consider, too, that they won’t suffer the consequences if you ever default -- and you will. Think of ways to financially survive long enough to make it through graduation. Long enough till you get those first few, oh-so-sweet paychecks from an employer. Long enough that you won't have to eat any more of those ramen noodles.
Here's how to tide yourself over without having to borrow from your business law professor.
1. Have paydays.
Fortune favors the bold. Cash is king. So, hustle. Get employed. Or have a side business that brings in a steady stream of cash.
The best job is often at the library or computer lab, where you'll get free time to sneak in some homework. Think of it as getting paid to complete your assignments and boost your resume. Once you have some work experience, consider applying for an office job at an organization that offers tuition reimbursement. Similarly, consider becoming an employee at your college so you can take free classes.
Be the kind of student who kills two or three birds with one stone. Whether you know it or not, you're the CEO of your sole proprietorship.
2. Use credit as a last resort.
Don't let academic credit lead to bad credit.
You're a subprime borrower. Don't max-out your borrowing capacity because, years from now, the IRS will make your life miserable. When it comes to personal credit, you would be prudent to have a credit card for emergency use only.
Thrift is better than swag. If I could talk to my 18-year-old self, here's what I'd say:
- Attend club meetings and recruiting events, and gobble up the hors d'oeuvres. Those meet-and-greets are great for meeting and greeting the free food.
- Get a roommate, and split the rent. Or, better yet, work as a residential assistant and get free rent.
- Find grocery stores that offer student discounts.
- Sell your car, and take the bus.
- Share used textbooks with classmates.
- Shop at Goodwill.
- Do research for a professor.
- Be a proctor at exams.
- Sell blood.
Dropping dollars on shiny items may bring you the perception of swagger, but swag will be the very thing that makes you go broke. Ask 50 Cent. Swagger never put gas in anyone's car.
4. Take prerequisites at a community college.
"College tuition has been rising almost 6 percent above the rate of inflation," Ray Franke, a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, said in a 2015 interview with CNBC. Don't believe him? Here's a chart on tuition inflation.
Community college is a cheaper way of taking all those repetitive prerequisites, such as the "100" levels of U.S. history, pre-calculus and English lit. In my opinion, lectures easily found on Sparknotes aren't worth a couple of grand. Why pay a fortune to take a class you've already passed in high school? Heck, you can start a small business with just $2,000.
If you’re a tenured professor, high-salaried dean or unionized principal and you’re reading this article, I’ve got news for you: YouTube is free. If Google launched an accredited Google University, how many colleges around the country would see decreases in enrollment?
In the real world, pursuing your dreams costs money. Don't let college, law school or a masters in philosophy be a preamble to your future bankruptcy. What many administrators and professors won't tell you are the financial pitfalls of attending their school.
Many school bureaucrats are disguised as salespersons, who camouflage their sales agenda with idealistic-sounding titles such as "counselor" or "outreach coordinator.” In reality, they are paid by the university, and many act in the interest of the status quo. That is, they want to keep their comfortable job as well as sell the institution to you and your parents.
No doctrine can claim a monopoly on the truth, and you are not a prisoner of educational hyper-inflation. You can and should seek alternatives to expensive -- even abusive -- tuition rates. And, keep this perspective: A bright future is ultimately not found in a piece of baccalaureate paper but in a sharper mind and bustling attitude that bootstrapping forces you to have. Ask dropouts Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.
About that $5
It was 50 degrees that November night in Austin all those years ago. After my small feast at Burger King, I took a free shuttle to North Campus where I had parked my dark blue GMC. Each month, I saved hundreds of dollars in rent because that’s where I stayed.
The next day, I sold my Shakespeare anthology and repaid my professor. On the inside cover of the book, I wrote a letter to whoever would buy it: "Dear sir/madam, I'm selling you my favorite possession so I can pay for my education. Please take care of it because I'm weeping as I write this. Thank you."
Rather than feel sorry for myself, I felt immensely privileged to be learning some of the best works ever. I can still recite a few passages from memory, like this one: “And when I shall die, take him and cut him out in little stars, and he will make the face of heaven so fine that all the world will be in love with night and pay no worship to the garish sun.”
My education means the world to me. Years from now, yours will too.