Debt is not good. Nor is debt bad. Debt, including student debt, is a tool. Not unlike other tools, it is how we use or misuse debt that causes us to attribute a positive or negative connotation to it. I had the opportunity to pursue a degree three times. Each time, I took advantage of student loans. The question is whether those student loans were worth it.

Taking Out Undergraduate Student Loans

Attending college would not have been possible for me without them. Having grown up relatively poor, my parents were not in a position to pick up the cost of my education. I completed my bachelor’s degree and did not find employment right away. I had been a less-than-stellar student, and the economy was in the tank.

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It took six months after graduation for me to find a position in my field. Right at the bottom of the field. No one I knew from school made less than I did.

I had learned some lessons, and worked hard at my new less-than-great job. Soon, I was able to get promoted and pass some of the old college pack on the income ladder. I also passed those who had not gone to college and were working trades.

Being able to get my bachelor’s — loans and all — paid off, I earned significantly more income than if I had not gone to college.

Taking Out Graduate School Student Loans

A couple of years later, I decided to go back for my master’s, which meant more loans. The company I worked for would reimburse part, but not all, of my schooling. I was about to get married and would need to take out loans.

I considered this long and hard. Were student loans really worth it? Would my future earnings compensate for the additional loans? I took the gamble, and began my MBA journey.

About halfway through, I questioned if I had made a major mistake.

I was racking up debt and making a decent, but not great income. What had I done?

I decided to see what was out there in the work field, see if I could make this work. I was shocked. Companies were very interested in hiring someone halfway through their MBA with great grades. I accepted a position with another company, then accepted a counter-offer from the company I worked for – a major promotion and a major raise.

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Were My Student Loans Worth It?

The master’s began to pay off long before I had to start paying down the loans.

I considered going for a doctorate straight from my master’s. Several professors suggested I do so and offered to write letters of recommendation. I wanted to, but it was not possible. At least, not practical.

I had gotten married and started a family, and doctoral programs wanted you to quit your job and stay in the basement of the school for about six years, penniless and scrounging for food. This wasn’t happening for me.

Fast-forward a few years – quite a few – and it was time to revisit the school idea. The three kids were grown, or well on their way. I was on my own. I was in a better position to access what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.

A doctorate would help with the path I wanted to choose. And loans again.

The old ones were long paid off, but I needed to put myself in a less demanding work position to go to school. Aid seemed to be available to those who would quit work and live like hermits, doing the school’s bidding for a number of years.

If you wanted some control of your life, then you had to pay. And pay some more. And the government would graciously loan you a lot – a lot – of taxpayers’ money so that you did not have to become a servant to an educational institution.

Damn the torpedoes. Whether or not student loans are worth it was a question of how much you wanted to control your own experiences.

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The Bottom Line

This final chapter is not complete. The journey has been great. They call them “earned” doctorates for a reason!

So here I sit, with a fair pile of student debt – again. A bigger pile than the prior two together. But I am on an incredible journey of building a life of my own design, doing the work I want to do, and mostly not doing the work I do not want to do.

The plan is evolving, but again, student loans have allowed me to obtain what I otherwise would not have been able to. To me, those student loans were worth it.

It would have been awesome to get my education without debt, but I am grateful that student loans were there when I needed them.