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An education is rarely cheap, but you don’t have to order the caviar

I'll keep my college commencement speech brief.

Dear graduates: Quit whining about your debts. You're smart people. You were aware of the options. You made the calculation that an education was worth the financial commitment. You borrowed the money. Now you must pay it back.

Welcome to the world.

I recently heard a National Public Radio piece on student debt, which is much in the news these days. Like so many of the people featured in these stories, the young woman being interviewed had amassed a mountain of debt and, given her job prospects, etc., she didn't see how she could ever repay the money she borrowed to go to college.

In the course of her lamentations, the young woman, a recent graduate, made a passing reference to the fact that she had spent part of her four years studying abroad. The interviewer let the reference pass without further scrutiny because, I guess, the whole premise of the piece was that student debt is crushing the souls of our young people. How, exactly, that debt gets accumulated apparently was beside the point.

But having spent an entire career interviewing people, I couldn't help frame a question, or two, I would have liked to slip to the interviewer. For example:

"Now, you mentioned that you studied abroad. Did it occur to you that doing so would add to the debt you were accumulating?"

I suspect the reply would have been something like: "Yes, I did … and decided that a multi-cultural experience was essential to a well-rounded education, and that it was worth the extra expense."

Excellent answer. So, what was there to complain about? She hired the piper. She danced to the music. Why shouldn't she be the one to pay the bill?

Yes, I know all the arguments: Tuition increases have outpaced income growth. Degrees don't pay off like they used to. Part-time jobs are harder to come by for the students who want to work their way through college.

Still, I wonder if all this debt is absolutely necessary. Sure, the full-blown college experience is a wonderful thing. Four years away from home, on a leafy campus, lots of spare time for spontaneous exploration, a semester or two in a foreign country.

But there are other, less expensive ways, to get a college education. For example, starting off at a community college, living with parents for the first year or two, taking one of those part-time jobs nobody else wants, or working during the day and going to night school.

These things have been done. Are they as glamorous as four years far away from home at a Big Ten university? Are they as exciting as full immersion in the college campus experience? Maybe not, but many people have taken the more pedestrian paths to fine careers.

The Parable of the Three Collegians (intimate acquaintances of mine): The parents of these two brothers and one sister offered each of them the same deal. Ma and Pa would pay their college tuition. If they chose to attend the university down the road, known as MSU, they could, if they so desired, continue to live at home free of charge. If, on the other hand, they wished to go to school elsewhere, they would be on the hook for their own room and board.

One son went to MSU, lived at home for the first year, worked a succession of part-time jobs, confined his studies to the U.S., and graduated debt-free. The other brother and sister went elsewhere – to a place called U-M – and although they, too, worked part-time jobs, one spent a semester in Mexico, the other in France. They both graduated with moderate debt.

I'm not saying one route was better than the other. Each had its own advantages and costs. But what's there to whine about? The three graduates all got what they wanted.

By the way, generally speaking, a college degree is still a good deal; the unemployment rate for college grads remains significantly lower than for non-grads.

So, in summary, my advice to recent college grads is this: Wake up. Own up. Pay up.

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