Why Avoiding Student Loan Debt Was The Best Thing I Ever Did

by Elaina Giolando

Most of us want to do it all: find meaningful work, travel while we're young, say no to the wrong opportunities, say yes to the right ones, experiment with entrepreneurship, save for the future and create a lifestyle that allows us to live life to the fullest.

Unfortunately, the financial structures behind higher education in the United States today are constructed in ways that hinder freedom of some Americans, and we've only begun to understand the social and economic implications of this systemic malpractice.

I believe student loans were created with good intentions. The plan was to help provide a vehicle for upward mobility for the lower classes. With no possible way to fund a higher education, a loan was a sensible way to get a leg up.

Loans, dating back to the 1950s, helped move college enrollment numbers from just 185,500 in 1940 to 839,730 by 1970. But keep in mind, the average cost of attending college in the 1980s was 3,500 dollars, a much more reasonable amount of debt to have at the beginning of a career.

Since then, the cost of a college education has risen 400 percent, but the median income has only increased by 14 percent.

Now, when 40 million Americans are shackled to an average of 35,000 dollars -- a number that has tripled over the past two decades as the nationwide total student debt approaches 1.4 trillion -- they are left with no choice but to accept the first job with a salary high enough to start repaying their loans.

Forget about taking time off to see the world, or accepting an unpaid internship at a dream company. Forget about taking risks, having the funds to start a small venture without outside investment, or saving to have enough money to navigate a career transition later in life.

Most importantly, forget about getting ahead financially so that you can work less as you get older.

It's no wonder 70 percent of Millennials are unhappy in the workforce -- most of them haven't had time to consider what they'd actually like to do after graduation, or they simply can't afford to do what they really want because they're in debt.

So, the poets are bankers, the designers are consultants, and the activist has gone into advertising, which results in a huge portion of our youth becoming marginalized, misplaced, and frustrated because of a financial burden that couldn't possibly be comprehended at the age of 17.

My Story

At 26, I look back on the past 10 years of my life and see, with a humbling clarity, that the biggest facilitator of my ability to travel to 50 countries by age 25, quit a corporate job I found stifling, land my dream job and take a gap year to pursue a side career as a freelance writer was my lack of student debt.

I'm from a hardworking, blue-collar family from Buffalo, NY and I knew early on that my parents couldn't pay for my college education.

I graduated with top marks, served as president of my class and was an all-around overachiever. I was awarded a full academic scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, worth approximately $160,000 over four years.

I earned tens of thousands of dollars in additional scholarships that allowed me to travel to Guatemala, South Korea, China and Egypt as an undergraduate. I also worked two part-time jobs and graduated with substantially more money than when I enrolled. I was incredibly lucky.

After graduation, I landed a management consulting job at IBM in New York City, but my pesky international inclinations drove me overseas after two years. I've since been able to build a writing and coaching business and I even took a break to spend 14 months traveling the world this year.

The Alternatives and Way Forward

My message is simple: High school students, parents and young professionals considering graduate school should be extremely wary of going into debt.

Sometimes, especially for students from lower income levels, there isn't much choice. If you have to take out a loan to get an education, I won't tell you not to. But if there's a good, less expensive choice? Take it. Try for scholarships. If you can study and work at the same time, do that. Educate yourself on loan companies and your finances.

We're entering into age where technology has changed the playing field, and your personal brand, experience, personality, network, and drive are becoming almost as important as the degrees that set you back a decade in loan repayments.

Fortunately, the start-up world has also taken note of the debt crisis and companies like WeFinance, SoFi, Gradifi, Student Loan Hero, Student Loan Genius and Common Bond are innovating the student loan model in a very positive way.

WeFinance allows people to crowdfund their loans, and Gradifi and Student Loan Genius encourage employers to help employees pay off debt as part of their benefits programs.

We vote with our dollars in America, and we can decide that the freedom to start our professional lives on our own terms is worth more than the name of a prestigious institution on our resume.