The Gospel Coalition

So you want to go to college. Good decision! There's a good chance followers of Jesus played a key role in starting your school, even if you don't attend a Christian college. These heroes showed us how to glorify God by exercising his gift of thinking. Following in their steps, you will be one of the relatively few around the world with the intellectual and financial means to attend college. You have been given this rare gift so you can bless others, not merely enrich yourself. That perspective will help you study harder even as you look for ways to serve the community and share the gospel of Jesus Christ during these life-changing years.

As a college student you may be tempted to look down on others who don't enjoy the blessings of higher education. After all, it's only growing harder these days to support a family---even just yourself---without an undergraduate diploma. On average, college graduates earn about $22,000 more annually than peers who did not finish a degree. The high unemployment rate for young workers may discourage you; it's not the best time to be 20. But imagine trying to find a job you might enjoy with decent benefits and prospects for advancement if you didn't pursue at least two years of further education after high school. And surely you're familiar with the social benefits of college. You're probably looking forward to making interesting new friends and learning how to live away from home. As long as you live, your alma mater will make you proud. You might not even mind that they never stop asking for money, even when their endowment exceeds $31 billion.

I should warn you, however: Someone has to pay, and college isn't getting any cheaper. Your parents have probably pointed this out a time or two. (Go easy on them. The recession took a big bite out of their retirement accounts, and a year or two of private college tuition and board probably costs about what they paid for the house you grew up in.) Friends, guidance counselors, and admissions officers can surely point you to the various payment options. If you've studied hard enough to make it into one of those $5-billion-dollar-endowment schools, you might qualify for the best aid of all: need-based grants. No matter where you attend, sign up for work-study and fit at least 10 hours into your schedule. (Hint: Find a job like mine working in a quiet section of the library where you can also study.) When you've exhausted every other method of paying for your education (including scholarships: you'd be surprised by how many of your peers never bother to even fill out the forms), then we can finally talk about the main reason I'm writing you today: student loans.

You'll hear many voices tell you student loans are "good debt." By this they mean you're borrowing at relatively low interest rates for something that should produce great financial return over many decades. (Examples of bad debt would include cars and credit cards.) Indeed, student loans make sense if the federal government subsidizes them (get to know the meaning of Stafford and Perkins) and you limit their size by following the strategy we discussed earlier. That's easier said than done today. The average student debt has climbed to $25,250. Maybe that number doesn't grab your attention. This one will: Education debt now surpasses $1 trillion, topping even the absurdly high amount we Americans owe credit card companies.

Our fears of debt have not kept pace with the frightful surge in education costs. The College Board tells us tuition and fees at public, four-year colleges have nearly tripled in less than 20 years. That's not even the worst news. With the recession forcing cuts in state budgets, public school costs spiked 8.3 percent in 2010 alone. That Christian college you're considering probably isn't in much better shape, since the market crash slashed their endowments, already smaller than many of their secular counterparts. During the same time public-school costs tripled, private-school costs more than doubled.

Just in time for you to head off to school, America faces a crisis of education costs. That's why President Obama slow-jammed the news with Jimmy Fallon during a recent tour of several colleges and called on Congress to impose a one-year freeze on Stafford loan interest rates, which will otherwise double on July 1. Unless Congress obliges, more than 7 million students will pay about $1,000 more on their loans. But where does the federal government find another $6 billion to offset these costs? I hate to bear bad news, but the adults in charge have a hard time agreeing on how to solve these problems. And you thought student council meetings were a lot of talk and no action!

As we search in vain for ways to control education costs, we're only beginning to understand the social costs of our student debt. You and your parents should read and discuss this recent article from The Wall Street Journal. Marriage and children might seem a long way off right now, but you don't want to end up like these folks, who sacrificed family by taking out more than $75,000 in student loans they can't repay. The decisions you make today about how to pay for school will determine many other lifestyle decisions for decades to come. Remember, you can't escape your student loans in bankruptcy. Beg to borrow today, but you'll never plead your way out of these debts.

In conclusion, I'm tempted to tell you to pick a challenging but safe major like pre-med or engineering where you'll greatly improve your chances of earning a large salary and avoiding pesky creditors. I've also considered advising you against enrolling in that costly private school with the beautiful campus and low faculty-to-student ratio. But with a journalism and history degree from an expensive private university under my belt, I'm hardly qualified to counsel practicality.

So here's my final bit of advice: leave yourself options for God to lead where you don't expect to go. You may find that lucrative career as a professional musician or lawyer doesn't excite you at 21 the way it did when you were 18. With God's blessing, your faith in Jesus Christ will surpass your current imagining during the next four years. And God often calls fervent young believers during college to give themselves in service as pastors and missionaries. Or you may identify with an exciting non-profit seeking justice for the poor and oppressed. These careers will not likely compensate you well. Sizable debt will tempt you to bypass them. But who wants to study four years just so you can work a job the next 20 to pay for it? Student debt isn't worth the price of freedom to follow God in your career, marriage, and family choices.

You're going to love college. Think hard. Think to the glory of God. And think before you sign those loan papers.

Your friend,



Heather E. Carrillo

May 9, 2012 at 11:08 AM

And what do you do if you ARE gifted in the arts?

I'd rather work as a secretary for someone who got a degree in "something viable" and pursue my craft on the side, than major in "something viable" and be miserable for the rest of my life.

I agree that you shouldn't take out $50,000+ loans to major in interpretive dance when you can pay for that slowly and still pursue your dreams. But a discouragement of pursuing what you are gifted at (at all) doesn't do anyone any good.

Believe it or not there ARE people who will never be good at (or enjoy) IT work or science or mathematics.


May 9, 2012 at 11:06 AM

It depends. The standard is a 25 year repayment (being reduced to 20, unless the Ryan Plan gains steam) with loan forgiveness afterwards. Alternatively, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program is 10 years.


May 9, 2012 at 10:59 AM

1.)This Friday, I will be graduating debt free with an associates in IT Security from a local community college. Community college offers great programs at low costs (mine was $50 a credit hour).

2.) I am going on to get my Bachelors at Western Governors University, a regionally accredited school conducted solely online (not considered in the same light as university of Phoenix, ITT, etc. Not anything against those schools, I've just heard they are not looked at very highly by employers). Its costs are around $3000 per 6 month term, and you can take as many classes as your schedule can handle. Most degrees receive industry recognized certifications as they pass the classes, and the certifications tests are included in your tuition. That way, you are not only getting credit toward your Bachelors, but also boosting your resume and your practical knowledge at the same time.

3.) Listen to Frank Turk. Please don't major in art because you are "following your dreams". If you are okay with being a secretary for someone who did decide to get a degree in something viable, then by all means go for it. But if you are someone looking for a lifelong career in a good industry, don't pick something that doesn't fit that. You will have no job, and much debt.

4.) Forgive me if I sounded harsh in my last post. I say this as someone who was headed toward that. I started off my college career before I was a believer, and it was in psychology. On top of my born again viewpoints on modern psychology, it is not really a great field to be in. It seems you have to at least have a Masters to do anything with it, and a doctorate if you want to do anything other than teach.

5.) Most of all, go to college to show Christ as a treasure. To be able to provide for your family. To be a light to others. To be a good steward of God's money in blessings to others who are in need.

Glynn Mangold

May 9, 2012 at 10:26 AM

Well said! Thanks.

david bartosik

May 9, 2012 at 04:28 PM

THis is a great word for those students who are pursuing intercultural studies degrees and then ship off to be missionaries. Gotta pay off all that student debt first, and it pushes that ship off date way back. maybe a good thing, but this post was a great reminder just to be careful.


May 8, 2012 at 11:46 AM

Funny how education cost are skyrocketing, but a teacher and seminary professors salary remains at bay with a taxi driver….but that is another conversation.

[...] not absolutely necessary, is probably a good idea.  But as pointed out this week in a post at The Gospel Coalition blog , the combination of modest pay and high student loan debt should cause those of us considering a [...]


May 8, 2012 at 09:43 AM

I got a degree at a state school, it took me 10 months to find the career job that lined up with my major. I now make 4 1/2 times my college debt (It was under 15k) after only working for 2.5 years. My wife got a more artistic degree, and her debt is about 3 times what mine is. She also makes less than me, not too much though. We had to bite the bullet and move to an exremely busy city to pay off our debts.

Collin Hansen

May 8, 2012 at 08:13 PM

Of course, debtors who use IBR often end up paying more in the long run due to the additional accrued interest. Not sure that's a viable or wise solution for everyone.


May 8, 2012 at 08:05 PM

This is a timely article. It scratches the surface of a growing crisis, one on the verge of exploding much like the Housing one did. The reality is that for 30 years we have been living in a debt built economy (something Bible Believers should understand and be weary of…worship of money). If one were to actually look at the economic growth of this country over the last 30 years, he/she would see that if it weren’t for borrowing money there would actually be negative GDP numbers, individually and collectively. We have exponentially increased the cost / price of homes, education, healthcare (a function of GDP)… the must fund expenses of the American Dream through financing. A new word has been created for this modern misallocation of funds; Financialization. You see, when we are allowed to borrow money at will, it perpetuates the ability to pull tomorrows demand into today’s economy. When future money is injected into current budgets it inflates the purchase power and forces the supply/demand curve to shift unnaturally. We have grown accustomed to this as a nation, and have shared our newfound tricks with the global economy; to our own demise, as now we create primarily service orientated jobs versus actually producing something to sell. This ability to live beyond our means has permeated both the family budget and the government’s budget (Student Loans?).

I find it troubling, but not surprising, that Primary Education does little to teach basic economics and financing as part of a core curriculum. This is true of private Christian schools as much as it is of Public “Government” schools. As a father I’ve experienced first hand the frustration of looking for a sound Christian school for my children, one that will teach a classic education, focused on stewardship, leadership and personal accountability. I haven't found one yet, they pretty much all model the mess that is conveyor belt education, otherwise known as public school. Unfortunately much of the Christian community is as saturated with the worship of Mammon as their secular neighbors. We must be like the noble Bereans found in Acts 17, guided by the Holy Spirit to search and compare what is true and truly good.


May 8, 2012 at 07:34 PM

One key component missing in your analysis:

Income Based Repayment (IBR).


May 8, 2012 at 07:16 AM

try just worked for me :)

Check out | HeadHeartHand Blog

May 8, 2012 at 06:38 AM

[...] Forgive us our student debts Collin admits he doesn’t have all the answers, but he’s helping us to ask the right questions. [...]

Heather E. Carrillo

May 8, 2012 at 05:50 PM

Amen to this! I am in the same boat (History major, English and German minor) with nothing but debt to show for it.
I went to a great college and grew and had great experiences, but it was not worth the fact that my life is basically strapped into a job I'm unhappy with (and didn't even go to school for!) until I can get out of debt. More people (not politicians) should be talking about this.

Anthony G

May 8, 2012 at 01:12 PM

Well said, brother. I appreciate your wise and gutsy words.

gary hurd

May 7, 2012 at 11:32 PM

the link doesnt work, can you repost

just some guy

May 7, 2012 at 09:32 AM

As one who works a lot with Christian college students, I appreciate the balance of this post. Too often I hear students who are about to graduate moan and complain about how they "should have gone to Generic St. University" because they would be "in the same place" without the debt. I'm sorry, but that's just naive. It's either a lack of gratitude or lack of awareness. Sometimes it's just pride - thinking that they are the reason they grew how they did instead of the influence of those around them.

That said, I know some for whom it was a completely unwise decision to take out crazy amounts of loans to pay for college. They do end up handcuffed to their debt instead of being free to live generously, start a family, and (in some cases) go to the mission field. For them, "good debt" ended $50,000 ago.

Just a side note... seeing how many college students spend their time & money - the number of movies gone to, video games purchased, new clothes bought, meals at restaurants instead of the dining hall, expensive spring breaks, hours spent doing nothing productive or valuable relationally - it's pretty clear that paying for school isn't on their minds. While it may not seem like much, working 10 or 15 hrs a week and putting that money toward school goes a lot further than you might think. A change in thinking needs to happen to where "their" time and money needs to be thought of as something to be spent of things other than their pleasures.

[...] some of the realities of student debt in his article over at TGC.  You can read the whole thing here, but these are some tidbits that I found [...]


May 7, 2012 at 09:11 AM

How about join the military and let them pay.

I got out in 2004 (after a 6 year committment)...they paid for:

* 100% of my Bachelor's degree
* 100% of my Master's degree
* Currently paying 100% of my seminary expenses althouth the money runs out next year and I'll have to come up with the rest.

Also saw Europe and parts of the Middle East and recieved training that helped secure the job I enjoy now.

Just sayin'...there are more ways than one (slave to school loans) to pay for an education.

[...] Forgive Us Our Student Debts: Who wants to study four years just so you can work a job the next 20 to pay for it? Student debt isn’t worth the price of freedom to follow God in your career, marriage, and family choices. [...]

Jenny Florio

May 7, 2012 at 08:51 AM

Great article! This is a reality we all have to face and too often want to ignore.

CollegePlus not only helped me to get a bachelor's degree debt-free, but equipped me, as a wandering, clueless teenager, to develop a dynamic, God-centered purpose and plan for my life. With the time and money I saved in under-grad, now I can study for my master's degree at Westminster Theological Seminary, work a job that I love, and actively engage in real-life experience for the calling God has laid on my heart.

College costs are hard, but there is help. CollegePlus was a huge blessing in my life and I hope other people can check it out!

David Haggard

May 7, 2012 at 08:49 AM

Thanks for the thoughtful article on student loans. Student choices about paying for school, loans and financial literacy are of particular importance to me. I work for a small Christian college in the area of financial aid and began the blog in an effort to get students to "think hard" about these issues from a biblical perspective.


May 7, 2012 at 07:42 AM

Our seminary has made a way of getting your education without ever paying a dollar for it...
...only by the grace of God!


May 7, 2012 at 07:33 AM

My son is almost 2 years old and I'm already thinking about school for him. I am saving up money for him to help pay for school, but I also want him to be wise with what he does. Avoid private schools, the state schools offer just as good of an education and a cheaper cost. And for those who want the Christian environment of a Christian school, state schools usually have just as strong of a Christian community (and they are there because they want to be there, Christian schools have their fair share of partiers and people who really don't have much interest in a relationship with God). I also don't think it's a bad idea to wait a few years to find out what you really want to do, rather than try to figure it out while paying for school. Work a couple of years, save some money, and then you are really ready for school. Also, in the engineering field and others you can get into coop programs where you get real world experience and a paycheck that can help pay for school. I've almost paid off my school debt (my wife has a ways to go), but I'm already planning to help my kids avoid that.


May 7, 2012 at 07:09 AM

good word.
unfortunately for me, it's 10 years late. I went to a private school and am still paying off that debt. That last line, study 4 years and spend the next 20 paying for it is devastatingly true.
I long to go overseas for mission work, but it's not in my near future because of college...and careers with low pay to serve others.
I hope some young men and women will take to heart the truth in this post.

Frank Turk

May 7, 2012 at 05:08 PM

I also like RJ's suggestion of go Military, but do it because you are willing to die for your country and your family, not for free money toward education. Your free money will look terribly cheap when you are deployed to [hot zone] and you have to either kill or be killed.

Educational benefits for the military are the stone-least we can do, and they aren't hardly worth it if that's your motive. I say this as a someone who highly honors and respects those who serve honorably and who, when he was 19, could not choose to do that because I was an unsaved coward.

Frank Turk

May 7, 2012 at 05:03 PM

There are options which a lot of people don't really understand, and I think that if you aren't going to get a full ride in the Ivy League to become one of the intelligencia, here are some choices you (kids approaching college) need to live through:

1. Community College and JuCo. Why waste your money when you don;t really know what your major is going to be? Attend a good Junior College or Community College FT or PT, spend a LOT less, and work PT off campus at a job that, frankly, pays better than work/study. Working temp agency jobs can also get you workplace experience that you can't really trade for anything.

2. Work FT and do college PT. What this really means is that you pay as you go, and you wind up being a grown up rather than an extended adolescent. But in this case, you can again get something college actually is really bad at: experience at adult life.

3. Get a job on-campus FT, and then book the benefit of education for future use. For example: I have an in-law who is a classroom assistant for a technical college. She could have earned her advanced degree for free, but is instead booking credit toward her child's future education.

4. DO NOT pay for grad school. There are probably 50 ways to qualify for advance degree fellowships or assistants or TAs. Do THAT rather than take out a loan.

5. This is actually the most important item, so bank this one: MAJOR IN SOMETHING THAT WILL CAUSE YOU TO HAVE A CAREER THAT PAYS EQUAL TO THE MONEY YOU WILL INEVITABLY BORROW. Don't borrow $100,000 (the price of a starter house) for your art history degree or your MFA in interpretive dance. Those are interesting hobbies but not careers. Major in something that is employable, and go to a school that places people with employable degrees. If you must get that MFA or BA in Lit, buck up and double-major in Finance or Accounting or Mechanical Engineering. Poets die young and broke. Happy old people all have had engaging and productive careers. Prepare yourself to be happy and old.

Kate Wallace

May 7, 2012 at 03:33 PM

Thanks Jenny! I will have to look into collegeplus for my future academic endeavors! It is awesome that you are studying at Westminster Seminary! Keep up the good work for the Kingdom!

Kate Wallace

May 7, 2012 at 03:32 PM

Thanks Jenny! I will have to look into collegeplus for my future academic endeavors! It is awesome that you are studying at Westminster! Keep up the good work!

Kate Wallace

May 7, 2012 at 03:29 PM

I think it is wonderful that you are already saving up money for your son's college tuition!
I attended a Christian university for my undergraduate degree and I am now attending a secular university for my masters. I have to say that the difference in community is like night and day. My time at the Christian university gave me an incredible grounding in theology and a great sense of Christian community. While there is a Christian group at my current school, I am shocked by how little the undergraduate students know about theology and the Bible.
The advice I give to students (or their parents who are saving up) is to find a community college near a Christian school and to get plugged into the community at the Christian school while completing their general eds at the community college. This way, they can attend chapels, be a part of a small group, and even talk to theology professors and Christian staff members without the extra cost. When their general eds are finished, they can transfer to the Christian school where they are already part of a thriving community.

David Axberg

May 7, 2012 at 03:02 PM

Colledge Plus is great for some. My daughter is in the throws of it right now. So far two years of credits under her belt in 10 months and $3,600 so far. she will graduate next year Lord willing with a Bachelors degree in Mathmatics. She works for me 2 days a week to have $ in the bank for later and spending. My son is working on a dairy farm at this time he is 17. Thinks farm management is the way he wants to go so maybe a state school for free because we have established a farm 2 years ago and so in MA it is free tuition. The others are testing the waters for what may interest them - my youngest daughter at this time only wants to be a farmer's wife and raise a bunch of children.

With that said listen to your child and help them in their natural bents at an early age. Have them work for some of the perks of living in America. Love on them and show them that a heart after the Lord is way more important than stessing over education. We are to enjoy what the Lord has blessed us with and that includes our minds.

God Bless Now!

Glynn Mangold

May 7, 2012 at 02:29 PM

Regional public universities provide a good option for those who are trying to get the most for their educational dollar.

I teach at Murray State University in western Kentucky. The cost of education here is still a very good value . The student to faculty ratio is 15 to 1 . And, there are numerous campus ministries that encourage Christian students to study, fellowship, and grow spiritually.


May 7, 2012 at 01:52 AM

I have one word for you in order to help defray college costs. Here you go:



May 21, 2012 at 09:29 PM

Join the military: get some cojones and get a free education.

[...] great open letter from Collin Hansen to next year’s crop of college students on the dangers of student loans. [...]


May 11, 2012 at 08:38 PM

The real sticky situation is those who go to Grad school/Seminary for a field they really feel will be worth it (e.g. pastoral ministry) and know they won't have a salary that will compensate for it. I won't pick a degree based on how much it will pay. But more and more churches expect pastors to have seminary degrees without planning on paying them enough to make up for it.

Jason M.

May 11, 2012 at 03:28 PM

This is about 10 years too late for me too. I will graduate with a master's in counseling from a seminary next spring. When I graduate I will have to start repaying 100,000 dollars in students loans, plus my wife's 35,000. Going into the ministry I doubt I ever make more than 50,000 a year. So I will probably never be able to buy a house. I have 2 children that I love to death, but know that because of my decisions in the past they will have to feel the burden of those decisions. I was not a Christian when I first went to college and everyone in my life told me not to worry about student loans. So I took out as much as possible thinking I would be rich someday, because that is what colleges 10 years ago pretty much told you.

Joe Greene

May 11, 2012 at 03:12 PM

The real problem isn't student loan debt. Once again TGC tries to treat the symptom, instead of the disease, on an issue that isn't an examination of a theological issue (this is as bad as the drug czar article and the classical education article).

The problem is a mindset that believes debt is acceptable in all circumstances. I know plenty of college/career aged believers who pay their student loan debt off while accruing massive amounts of credit card debt because they have no idea how, and no desire to learn how, to live on a budget. If we don't solve that problem, then student loan debt is irrelevant.

I'll agree with one of the above responses concerning the alternative approaches. The Community/Junior college approach is a great one. In my area you can go to NOVA (Northern VA Community College) and, as long as your GPA is high enough when you finish your associate's degree, transfer in to George Mason with guaranteed acceptance. That slashes costs in nearly half and allows the student to take their time figuring out what they think they really want to do. I believe the system in Wilmington, NC has a similar deal with UNC-Wilmington.

Another option that is coming very soon is the idea of earning a certificate for free online. MIT, Stanford and others are already getting these programs up and running.

Getting back to the main point, this article misses the real issue. I just finished my M.Ed., I have just under $40k in loan debt, and I've already identified several cities where my specific degree is in demand while identifying the best living options within a budget range so that I can pay my debt off very quickly without adding more. I've found ways to live in DC for less than $50k per year, including minimum student loan payments, while interviewing for jobs that range from $20-$100k over that budget. All it takes is parents/churches/students taking the responsibility of living within their means.

Joe Greene

May 11, 2012 at 02:59 PM

Because the military, at least as it is currently being deployed, may well ask you to murder brown people in whatever the latest unjust, interventionist war happens to be.

[...] I should warn you, however: Someone has to pay, and college isn’t getting any cheaper. Your parents have probably pointed this out a time or two. (Go easy on them. The recession took a big bite out of their retirement accounts, and a year or two of private college tuition and board probably costs about what they paid for the house you grew up in.) Friends, guidance counselors, and admissions officers can surely point you to the various payment options. If you’ve studied hard enough to make it into one of those $5-billion-dollar-endowment schools, you might qualify for the best aid of all: need-based grants. No matter where you attend, sign up for work-study and fit at least 10 hours into your schedule. (Hint: Find a job like mine working in a quiet section of the library where you can also study.) When you’ve exhausted every other method of paying for your education (including scholarships: you’d be surprised by how many of your peers never bother to even fill out the forms), then we can finally talk about the main reason I’m writing you today: student loans.Source: [...]

spencer maccuish

June 6, 2012 at 01:03 PM

Some great thoughts here, I also think there is some work that needs to be done on actually amending the actual cost of education. Institutions also need to learn how to be fiscally responsible.

spencer maccuish

June 5, 2012 at 03:31 PM

Great summary of the issue. I appreciate the genuine concern, but there is more work to be done on this issue, especially within the evangelical community. There is an interesting series examining various aspects of student debt over at Exploring issues like why the cost of education is so high, what should a christian response be to student debt. What about christian colleges who are contributing to the debt load etc.