Beating the College Debt Trap

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In my home province of Ontario, everyone’s all abuzz over the announcement of “free” tuition for college and university for lower-income families. The only problem, of course, is it’s not free. Not at all. All that’s happened is the provincial government has increased the grant amount for these families. They still have to contribute $3,000, though, if they want to get that $6,000 grant.

Which means “free” isn’t free. They still have to save up some money. They still need to contribute—and they’ll still accumulate a ton of debt along the way because too few lower income families have college savings here in Canada, and even fewer younger people in general have any clue how to manage their money.

How do I know? I was one of them.

I went to college entirely on student loans because that was the only way for me to go to college. I wasn’t good with money. I had no savings. So loans seemed to be the way to go. Three years later, I graduated with around $15,000 in debt. It took me almost 10 years to pay it off (and even then, I did not because I actually paid it off, but because we rolled it into our mortgage).

There’s so much I wish I could tell my 20-year-old self. Heck, there’s so much I wish I could have told my 19-year-old niece before she went off to college a couple of years ago, too.[1. I did encourage taking the time to save up and avoid debt, but that went unheeded.] Now, I have three kids, the oldest of which will be ready to start thinking about college in just a few short years.

So what do I tell her? How do I help her avoid the mistakes I—and so many in the last 25 years—have made? Among the first things I’ll do is ask her to read Beating the College Debt Trap: Getting a Degree Without Going Broke by Alex Chediak.

Nine traps that shackle us with debt

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In this book, Chediak unpacks nine traps that lead us into college debt, and reminds his readers that it really is possible to get a degree without selling out your future. The traps he explores, in brief, are:

  1. Everyone must go to a four-year college
  2. It’s all just going to work out (and other lies you’ve heard about how money works)
  3. The money you spend on a prestigious college is worth it
  4. Choosing a major on a whim
  5. Student loans are always worth it (the “good debt” myth)
  6. I can’t get meaningful work as a student (therefore I won’t work)
  7. I can’t control my expenses
  8. Finding a high-paying job will be a breeze
  9. I’ve got a paycheck and can finally live it up!

These nine traps speak to the experiences and thinking of so many of us. We treat debt as if it were a good thing, instead of a snare. We act as though budgeting isn’t our responsibility. We go to school with no clue what we actually want to do, but we’re pretty sure it’ll work out in the end. We look at the name and reputation of the school, but we fail to consider whether all we’re buying is the name.

But the problem all starts with the first—that everyone must go to a four-year college—or to college at all.

From option to expectation

It starts early, around the 10th or 11th grade. At that point, many kids are expected to start thinking about college: where will I go? What will I take? But no one seems to ask should I go at all? The expectation today seems to be, “Of course you’re going to college or university!” It’s a given.

Except it’s not.

This is why there are so many teens and 20-somethings wandering college campuses, looking for a good time, but not having a clue about what they’re going to do for their careers. They’re going because they’re told they should. But no one ever seems to say, you know what? “No matter what you may have heard, four-year colleges are not for everyone. They’re especially not for everyone who’s barely eighteen and has just finished high school” (31).

Rarely does anyone encourage reflection, or time off. Instead, we move to the next thing and we fall prey to the first trap Chediak describes—the notion that everyone must go to a four-year college. But as he writes, “A four-year college is too expensive to wander into just because it’s somehow expected of you or because you have nothing better to do. Only go to a four-year college if it makes sense!” (32)

As I read, I found myself considering how we got into this mess. The thing that’s shocking is that the change from college being an option to an expectation happened within my own lifetime. I’m 36, which means I’m part of the second generation (if not the first) for whom going to college was seen as a given. And even my taking time off between high school and college seemed shocking to many of my peers and teachers!

But I needed that time, even if I didn’t use it as well as I should have. I wasn’t ready to go to college. I was actually pretty burnt out on school altogether. I needed the break to figure out what I wanted to do and get excited about learning again. I can’t imagine the financial trouble I’d have gotten myself into if I’d gone to college right after high school.

We’re all diploma mills now

This change from option to expectation has also lead to so many of the problems we see in the post-secondary system today. The college I went to, for example, has long had a reputation for being a party school. Academics weren’t terribly rigorous. The programs—with one or two exceptions—were not considered first class. But when I began attending, the program I was in was rehabilitating. It was trying to show itself as being elite and producing high-quality graduates.

By the time I graduated, the college was little more than a diploma mill. Why? Because the ever-expanding bureaucracy enjoyed the tuition money. Never mind that they were flooding the market with more graduates than jobs. Never mind that many of those graduates should have failed.

A high graduation rate means more money. Let future us (or better yet, not us) worry about the consequences.

American context, but universal principles

That probably sounds a bit jaded, I realize. And I don’t mean to be. A college education is extremely valuable—if you know why you’re going to pursue it, and you carefully count the cost. And this is probably the strongest aspect of Beating the College Debt Trap. Although this book is written from an understanding of the American system, and readers from outside the United States may be baffled by the technical details, the universal principles are entirely applicable.

It doesn’t matter if you live in America, Australia, Germany, or Canada, you should only pursue a degree where and when it makes sense. If your passion is welding, for example, go to a trade school! Regardless of where you live, you should learn how to budget early and develop a strong work ethic before you go off to school. Wherever you are, you can—and should—develop networking skills as early as you can so you can eventually get a job that pays reasonably well. And no matter what, you need to count the cost—you need to understand the rules around student debt in your context, and be savvy about saving up to do without and paying down what you do need to take on as quickly as possible. And all of these things work together to free you to honor God with our finances.

That’s what any reader can take away from this book. More importantly, it’s what I hope every reader takes away from it.


Title: Beating the College Debt Trap: Getting a Degree Without Going Broke
Author: Alex Chediak
Publisher: Zondervan (2016)

Buy it at: Amazon | Westminster Bookstore


This week, Zondervan has kindly provided me with three copies of Beating the College Debt Trap to give away! To enter, follow the instructions in the Rafflecopter widget below:

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Does debt have to be part of the college experience?

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When I started down the road of going to seminary, I made a commitment to avoid student debt. It is something that, even if it meant taking 10 years to get a two year degree, I am committed to avoiding. I’d already made that mistake once. The first time I went to college, it was funded almost entirely with student loans. When I got out of school, I owed about $15,000, and eventually got a job that paid a whopping $12 an hour with which to pay it off. (I shared my story and experience in greater detail here).

I wasn’t alone, though. Most of my friends and classmates had tons of student debt, and a number of them are only now getting out from under it all, 13 years after we graduated. Entire generations have been crippled by college debt—to the point that it’s not assumed that if you go to college, you’re going to come out owing tens of thousands of dollars.

What I wish I’d known then was whether or not this could have been avoided. Could I have gone to school and not come out the other side drowning in student loan debt? Was there any way for me to eliminate it up front, or at least minimize it?

This is one of the reasons I’m looking forward to reading Alex Chediak’s forthcoming Beating the College Debt Trap (despite it being written based entirely from the perspective of the American college system). Recently, Alex agreed to answer a few questions about his new book. If you’re a student or parent figuring out how to pay for school, or a graduate looking to pay off your loans without living with 18 roommates, I hope you’ll find the discussion helpful.


You wrote a book for students a few years ago called Thriving at College. Your new one, Beating the College Debt Trap, is also for students. How do the two differ?

Thriving at College is about making the most of the college years, about using that season in life as a launching pad into all that’s associated with responsible Christian adulthood. But while I briefly addressed money management skills, the whole idea of paying for college is more or less assumed.

In the four years since I wrote Thriving at College, the economics of college have continued to evolve. In 2013, a majority of families (57 percent) reported a student living at home or with a relative, up from 43 percent in 2010.[1. Douglas Belkin, “Parents Shell Out Less for Kids in College,” Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2013.] Online education is increasingly popular. “Non-traditional” college students (i.e., not 18-23 year olds enrolled full-time) have become increasingly numerous. And, of course, a greater percentage of college students are borrowing greater amounts of money each year, even though starting salaries for graduates have been virtually stagnant for a decade.

For many in our society, college seems maddeningly out of reach. But this is an illusion. The hopeful message of Beating the College Debt Trap is that Americans from all socioeconomic backgrounds can, armed with accurate information, and through the exercise of discernment, resourcefulness, and creativity, get the training they need to access a meaningful career without going broke in the process.

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Is this a book for families with more challenging financial circumstances?

First generation students certainly face unique challenges with the college experience. It’s not just that their parents have a limited ability to guide them through the maze of standardized testing, college applications, and filling out the FAFSA. It’s that they don’t have the professional networks that many of us take for granted. I’m talking about the people who encouraged us to pursue specific majors and colleges and exposed us to countless opportunities for advancement. As I discuss in the book, first generation students tend to undermatch—they pick colleges that are below their academic abilities. Some of these colleges lack the financial means to give generous need-based tuition reductions, which means the very students most in need of assistance end up carrying higher than necessary debt loads.

But plenty of middle class families fall into the trap of borrowing obscene amounts of money so their children can attend “the college of their dreams”—as if the incremental value of a “prestigious” college is higher than the incremental value of a college degree. Provided you graduate, the research shows that where you go to college is less important than that you go to college. The other way this trap works—and I know I’m on sensitive ground here—is this notion that “my child must attend a Christian college, whatever the cost.” The nurturing environment of a distinctively Christian institution has its advantages, and I do think it’s often worth it if you have the money, but it’s not as if Christian students can’t be successful at secular universities. I’ve met graduates of Christian colleges with debt loads greater than twice their annual starting salary. They simply would have been better served going elsewhere, and that’s by no means intended as a critique of their institution.

What is the argument you make in Beating the College Debt Trap?

The central message of the book is that Americans from all socioeconomic backgrounds can, armed with accurate information, and through the exercise of discernment, resourcefulness, and creativity, get the training they need to access a meaningful career without going broke in the process. I unpack this in four sections which build on each another.

First, I examine some of the assumptions people make about the college process. There’s the perspective that just about everyone should aspire to earning a bachelor’s degree. This view fails to account for the diversity of talents and interests young adults have, not to mention the diversity of jobs in our economy. Associate degrees and trade schools, for example, can represent excellent paths to rewarding professions. Then I examine the assumption that college debt is fine because “it will all work out after graduation.” This is another variation of the “everyone is doing it” myth. The point of this section is that unmasking false assumptions is a prerequisite for smart, informed decision-making.

Second, I assess three crucial decisions: the choice of a college, the selection of a major, and deciding what to do about loan opportunities. With choosing a college, I address three common pitfalls that lead to students spending more than they should. With choosing a major, I stress the importance of assessing your skills/interests (looking inside) and learning about the prospective field (looking outside). I also discuss the differing financial prospects for different fields, the dangers of over-specializing, and how to take the right steps during college to best stand out to employers after college.

Third, I look at the nuts and bolts of earning and spending during the college years. What can college students do to earn more and spend less? I give a bunch of ideas while explaining the importance of living frugally. The possibilities for professional development during the college years are also discussed. And I warn of the danger that credit card dependency represents for college students.

In the fourth and final section of the book, I look beyond the college years. New graduates face big hurdles in what’s become a slow-growth economy. First-job wages for college graduates have been stagnant for about a decade, even as debt loads at graduation continue to explode. In March 2014, a reputable survey found that only one in five 2012 & 2013 graduates was earning over $40,000 per year. Graduates need to jettison the entitlement mentality, roll up their sleeves, and prove themselves in the marketplace.

Underemployment is a common phenomenon for young graduates, but not all underemployment is bad. Graduates have to distinguish between jobs that have long-term potential and those that don’t. And if they job-hop, they need to do it in a way that will make sense to future employers—in a way that lets them build on their existing skills and that contributes to the narrative arc of a nascent yet discernible career trajectory. That’s how financial and professional advancement are earned, and that’s ultimately how twentysomethings can kick their student debt to the curb once and for all.


Beating the College Debt Trap is currently available for pre-order. Zondervan and Alex have also put together a great pre-order special: when you pre-order the book, you’ll receive a free parent-child discussion guide as well as discounts on Alex’s other books. Learn more about the pre-order special here, and consider pre-ordering a copy today.


photo credit: Owned. via photopin (license)

The tools for courageous conversations with your teens: A conversation with Alex Chediak

The transition to college from high school can be as intimidating as it is exciting—for both teens and parents. Looking back on my college years, I needed a lot more help than I realized. There was a TON I was just completely unprepared for, things I absolutely want my kids to be ready for if and when they take that step.

Not too long ago, I shared a few thoughts on Alex Chediak’s latest book on this subject, Preparing Your Teens for College, a book I described as one you didn’t know you needed to read until you read it. And just recently, Alex kindly took some time to answer a few questions about the book, the challenges teens face as they head to post-secondary education, and the conversation he wishes he’d had when he was 15:

AA: What motivated you to write this book?

AC: Three factors: College has never been more expensive, more students than ever are going, and a disturbingly large percentage of those students are stumbling along the way. In the U.S., we have the highest college drop-out rate in the industrialized world. The stakes are high–having a degree or credential of some kind is increasingly important in the job market–and too many students aren’t making it. Preparation is crucial.

I had already written a book for students (Thriving at College). It seemed strategic to write a companion book for parents of 12-18 year olds—those getting their teens ready not just for college but for the totality of their lives.

Why do you think so many teens are unprepared for the realities of college and adult life?

Simply put, they haven’t had enough modeling and training in what it means to take on adult responsibilities. Many parents have bought into the prevailing view that teens are inherently impetuous, reckless, and irresponsible. Why train someone when they aren’t ready to learn? But when we have low expectations for our teens, we get little in return. Adolescence gets extended.

I think the opposite error is more common among Christians: Helicopter parenting. A lot of the students I’ve seen struggle in college came from very loving families where they were treated like children all the way through high school. These teens were controlled instead of coached. In the interest of protecting them from failure or hardship, Mom and Dad stunted their development.

Here’s a quote from my book about this: “Don’t minimize your teens’ trials, but don’t solve their problems for them either. The former will make them feel weak. The latter will ensure they stay weak.”

In the book, you write about the importance of quality friendships—why does this matter so much? How have you seen this at work in the lives of your students?

Our closest friends shape our trajectory in life, particularly in the teen years as we’re entering adulthood. Proverbs 13:20 reads, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm.” It’s also true that “birds of a feather flock together.” In my experience, students that are serious about learning tend to find each other. Ditto for those more interested in partying.

That’s why it’s important for our teens to assess what character qualities, what virtues, they value, and to pursue friendships with others who share those values. In high school, it’s sometimes easier because of supportive circumstances (loving parents, a strong church, a vibrant youth group). But at college, it’s tougher, particularly at secular colleges, because now you have to go out of your way to find “iron sharpening iron” (Proverbs 27:17) relationships. The easiest friendships to form aren’t necessarily the best ones. Since we ought to prepare for a test before (not during) a test, the ideal time to learn intentionality in friendships is before college.

Preparing Your Teens for College

Preparing Your Teens for College is available now. Buy it at Westminster Books or Amazon.

Think back to yourself at 15. Which of these conversations did you most need to have with your parents? Why?

In the book I describe how I failed to see any connection between my budding Christian faith and my academic work. That made it hard for me to be motivated at school. As I came to see God as the Author of all truth, to appreciate my responsibility for developing whatever God-given abilities with which I was entrusted (Matthew 25:14-30), as I came to understand that loving my neighbor required having something useful to offer, and that usefulness presupposes competence, I came to love learning.

Your kids still fairly young, so college is a fair ways off (although looming!). How are you already applying what you’ve thought through and taught in this book with your family?

The faith component is crucial. I hope, pray, and labor that my kids will experience the twin miracles of regeneration and faith, which is the best foundation for developing the character and maturity necessary for success not just in college but in life. A good tree bears good fruit. True faith necessarily leads to good works.

I’m also striving to teach them to love learning—to really enjoy the exercise of their mental faculties, as they gain mastery over subjects they didn’t previously understand. Similarly, I want them to see that while learning can be difficult, it can be done. Kids are prone to give up on a task they can’t figure out in 20 seconds. What I want them to learn in those moments is to push themselves through that initial difficulty—to assess and categorize the task, to develop strategies, to call upon fundamentals previously learned, and to (if necessary) ask for a hint instead of an answer. I try to regularly encourage them with how much they’ve already learned. I pray that all my children experience the thrill of learning.

If you can offer one encouragement to the parents who will read your book, what would it be?

The evidence is clear that a mom and dad’s involvement in a teen’s life influences them in meaningful ways. Parents, you have the potential to make an overwhelmingly positive difference in the lives of your teens. Even when they don’t seem to care, they are watching what you do and listening to what you say. And even in your stumbling you have the opportunity to model repentance, humility, and the fact that we relate to our Father on the basis of grace, not our imperfect works (which will help your teens do likewise).

I wrote Preparing Your Teens for College to give you the courage and the tools to have crucial conversations with your teens about the issues that will shape the trajectory of their lives. Even if your teens are halfway out the door, it’s not too late to make an impact. And it’s never too early to start.


Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a speaker and professor of engineering and physics at California Baptist University. He is the bestselling author of Thriving at College, the recently released prequel, Preparing Your Teens for College (both with Tyndale House Publishers), and numerous articles for Christian College Guide, Boundless, and other publications. He has appeared on programs such as Focus on the Family and Family Life Today. Alex and his wife, Marni, and their three children reside in Riverside, CA. Learn more at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).

Preparing Your Teens for College by Alex Chediak

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My niece is heading off to college this fall. This is weird for me… partly because it reminds me how far away I am from my own teens and college years. But when I think of my niece, I don’t think of an almost 18-year-old getting ready to take a first step into adulthood. I sometimes still think of her as a six-year-old wanting to play dress-up and paint on the carpet with nail polish.

But it also makes me realize that I really don’t have that long before one of my kids is ready to go to college. My oldest daughter is 7, and she’ll be 17 before we know it. So how do we start preparing ourselves—and eventually her—for that big milestone?

That’s much of the heart behind Alex Chediak’s new book, Preparing Your Teens for College. Written as a series of 11 conversations to have with your teen over the course of several months (or years), this book addresses everything from encouraging your child to own their faith to how to save for tuition.

A few thoughts on reading this book:

1. You don’t actually have to read this book in order. Although it can be beneficial to read through it from start to finish, it’s not necessary. You might want to start off simply reading the most pressing topic for you at the moment.

The section I most deeply resonated with during my read through (which was one I also turned to almost immediately upon opening the book) was the conversation on financial responsibility. I went to college almost entirely on student loans. I didn’t learn how to manage money during high school, so I had virtually no savings. I came out of school with a fairly sizeable debt load, but no skills on how to manage money. So that debt grew. And grew. And grew… It took a long time for me to learn how to manage money responsibly, and this is something I want to pass on to my kids, particularly the most foundational element—who our money actually belongs to:

Your teens don’t have much money yet. Now is the time for them to start thinking about money in a way that recognizes it all belongs to God, not us, and that we’re to use it to advance his purposes. Only from this firm foundation can they learn to properly manage it. (202)

This mindset is absolutely what I want for my kids. I want them to understand that how we use money is ultimately about furthering God’s purposes in the world, not satisfying our every passing fancy. Simply, because God desires for us to be generous and wise with the money He’s provided, we need to pray earnestly and think carefully about how we give, spend and save. This is

2. You don’t need to have a teen to read this book. As I’ve mentioned, I don’t have teens yet. But I have one child who is fast becoming one. And in some ways, I feel like I’m the exact target audience for this book because what Chediak repeatedly encourages us to remember is that none of these conversations are one-and-done. They should happen over a long period of time, laying a foundation and building based on your child’s age and maturity.

For example, I’m not going to have a conversation with my oldest daughter about sex right now. She isn’t really ready for an in-depth discussion on the topic. But I will (and have) talk to her about the purpose of boyfriends and girlfriends, and how the purpose is to get to know the person you’re going to marry, which is why we need to think carefully about who we spend time with.

This principle of building on a foundation is important for every topic discussed, from encouraging godly friendships and maintaining sexual purity, to developing godly character and teens internalizing their faith.

3. You’re going to be challenged to look at your parenting. This is especially true as you consider how to help your child discover his or her gifts and abilities or whether or not your child should go to college or university at all. Many of us have bought into the notion that wanting more for our kids means making sure they’re better educated or in a more distinguished field… But sometimes this is simply our own idolatry at work. We want to live out our unfulfilled dreams through our kids, instead of nurturing the unique person God has made them to be—and let them own that:

Perhaps you’ve always thought they’d make great doctors, or you have your sights set on them taking over the family business or going into ministry. Look for fruit in their lives and hearts to see if any of that makes sense. Whatever happens, remember that they are the ones who have to live wit the consequences. So give them space to own these decisions. (286)

4. It’s very “American.” This is not going to be an issue for the majority of the readers of the book, since they’re going to be Americans. But as a Canadian, there are a few things that don’t translate. These are mostly related to some of the practical tips on saving, terms related to degrees, and the like. This is a very minor quibble since, again, the author is an American writing to a primarily American audience. But it’s a good reminder for us non-Americans to focus more on the principles provided than the particulars.

Preparing Your Teens for College is one of those books that you don’t know you need to read until you read it. It’s packed with practical wisdom, sound theology, necessary challenges and much-needed encouragement for parents. Whether college is weeks or years away, you will benefit from reading this book and starting the conversations that will help your child thrive in college and beyond.


Title: Preparing Your Teens for College: Faith, Friends, Finances, and Much More
Author: Alex Chediak
Publisher: Tyndale House (2014)

Buy it at: Westminster Books | Amazon