Student loan debt: Is there another way?

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By Scott K. Fish

My parents didn’t have money to send me to college. I would have to pay for it by working or through student loans.

When it was my turn to graduate high school, the expectation at home was that I would earn a college degree. But there were hitches.

As discussed in my previous column, “What Are Schools For?,” I couldn’t wait to get out of high school, to pursue my dreams of carving out a living as a drummer and a writer. That was the first hitch.

My impression of college — I don’t know why I had this impression — was of a place of higher learning where I could say goodbye to uninteresting subjects, and focus on subjects to help prepare me to earn a living. New York Institute of Technology was my first college. I focused on journalism and writing.

The second hitch? Money. I did take out a $1,000 student loan, worth in today’s dollars, $6,600.31. Here’s what I remember most. My local bank gave me $1,000 in one cash payment. I asked if the money came with spending guidelines, limitations. The bank teller said no.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but I wasn’t expecting $1,000 cash with no spending restrictions. 

Before I was out of the bank I thought, “I could buy a drum set.” But, I dismissed the idea as impractical, unethical, and sure to disappoint my parents. Instead, I enrolled for a semester at New York Tech. What did I find? High school redux. More mandatory than elective courses. More life wasted on diversions — like biology — and less life spent in pursuit of writing and music.

My $1,000 loan was gone; spent on useless tuition and textbooks. I had nothing tangible to show for my debt, except a realization that instead of high school redux, I should be in the real world pursuing my dreams. I was already playing drums, writing and having my work published in newspapers and magazines. I was an avid reader, curious, with good reasoning ability and a strong work ethic.

Was a college degree necessary for professional drummers? No. Was a college degree necessary for a professional writer? No.

From then on I entered the work world, playing drums and writing at every opportunity; working other jobs to keep a roof over my head, my car on the road, food in the fridge, and to pay my other bills. 

Meanwhile, I was educating myself, non-stop learning how to write better, and how to be a more versatile drummer. I accumulated a book library, often less expensive used books, covering music and drum history. Pop, jazz, and blues music at first, expanding later into classical, country, ethnic, Latin. In the same way I built an extensive record collection. For the most part, any music I wanted to hear was available either on record, radio, or live.

I took the same approach to writing. How do you learn to write? By writing! Books by the world’s best writers were easy to find, often for 25 cents at book sales. And there were also several helpful “how-to” books on writing, such as “The Elements of Style,” by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White,” and “How To Be Brief: An Index to Simple Writing,” by Rudolf Flesch.

Yes, along the way I enrolled in college courses when taking courses in college was the best place for me to learn a subject, a skill.

Today, all my lifelong self-educating sources — the music, the books, the experts, the college courses — are in my pocket, available 24/7/365 on my iPhone.

Remember that next time you’re considering taking on student loan debt. Ask yourself, “Is being indebted to the government the only way to get the knowledge and experience I want?”

Or is there another way?

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.



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