Dear Mentor: Should I take on a large debt for grad school?

Dear Mentor,

I’ve been accepted into a prestigious graduate program to study public policy (my passion!), but I am concerned about all the student loans I would have to take out to do this program. I am wondering, does God ever ask us to take financial risks like this, or is this a burden that I should avoid? I want to work in Washington some day, and I want to do the best I can to use my talents and my passion to glorify God, and I do believe this is the best program for me to get to where I want to go.

On the one hand, I worry that student loan debt could become a burden, and I don’t want it to dictate my life choices for years to come. On the other hand, I wonder if God wants me to take this risk and trust him with my worries so that I will see all the ways that he provides for me.

I am from a small town and most people have told me that this is too expensive and I should just find something else — settle down, get a job, etc. But I am not ready to give up just yet. I would love to hear from any of you who have faced similar choices with school and career. Thank you!

From Hillary Lum

This is a terrific question. Loans can be a tangible aspect of pursuing our calling, and are important to consider on the front end. I think educational debt can be reasonable as long you also accept how it will influence your life in the future. Whether loans become a “burden” and ”dictate” your choices will depend on you; any debt may influence other major life choices like choosing where you live, what you do, marriage (and thus, a spouse’s choices), or children.

A few recommendations and considerations:

  1. Discern myths about higher education: sometimes ”prestigious” graduate programs are just plain expensive; you may be paying for the ”name,” while the education and networking opportunities are equivalent at other good programs that are less expensive. Talk with people who are in your field of choice to find out how important the specific school was. In many fields, the student’s effort and connections are what matters most.
  2. Avoid traps of ”free“ money: Make sure to read the fine print on the student loans, and avoid taking out more than you need. In my experience, medical students and residents have been particularly susceptible targets of ”available and convenient“ money that is exactly the opposite once the actual terms come to light.
  3. Estimate what your cost of living balance will be like after graduate school: What is the average starting salary after graduate school? What is the cost of living, especially rent, in your targeted area? What is the average loan payment and how long will it take? Then, think about whether you’re willing to make compromises to pay off your loans as quickly as possible and live within your means. This is where living in community can have financial benefits also (housemates, not having a car, etc.).

Altogether, I do not believe that loans are inherently evil, but do warrant critical investigation and thinking ahead about how long the debt will be an influential part of your life.


From Leslie Walker

I’m biased (see below), but ultimately for me these decisions that are not right/wrong decisions, but ”what is the BEST“ thing to do decisions are okay to leave in God’s hands. He is perfectly capable of closing doors he doesn’t want you to enter, and it’s okay to move forward in uncertainty. II Corinthians 2:5–7 reminds us to “walk by faith and not by sight“ when we are tested, because he has a purpose in that process. Going to an expensive school because of its prestige, without direction or passion in a course of study, sounds foolish. So does ”just getting a job“ because graduate school will cost money. Following your passion to an excellent program but taking out loans might be God’s way of both preparing you to serve him in a particular area and increasing your faith in (and dependence on) him.

Disclosure: I took out $70,000 in student loans for the last two years of medical school, which I am STILL repaying sixteen years later. (Four to go, and this is so much less than many medical and graduate students have in debt today!) But here I am, a practicing psychiatrist, and I love what I do. This is my calling. It was totally worth the money. And while I could have gone to a cheaper medical school, I believe that God has used the training that I received from prestigious institutions to open doors and provide credibility. Both in terms of subsequent jobs that I’ve gotten, and in terms of the positive assumptions that colleagues and patients make purely because they know where I studied, I see the intangible consequences of training at competitive and highly-regarded programs.

Most professionals don’t need prestigious degrees, and you can get excellent training at less famous institutions. But it’s possible that if God calls you to Washington, a prestigious program will provide specialized training, facilitate jobs or networking, or connect you to a particular need that you are called to address, and that’s why he got you in. In that case, presumably God will enable you to pay off your loans. Your financial responsibility will be to try avoid any more debt than necessary, and to be faithful in repayment.

However, it is also true that if God wanted you to work in public policy in Washington, and you hadn’t gotten into the prestigious program, or you were concerned about the money so you went to a cheaper and less prestigious program, that he could still direct you into the same role. I have faith in God’s sovereignty including his ability to intervene if we take a path he hasn’t chosen for us. Ultimately it’s going to be up to him where you go and what you do. So I vote for prayer, maybe even with fasting, and asking other Christian friends or family to partner with you in praying for direction. And if your passion remains public policy and you’ve gotten into the best program, go for it!


From guest curmudgeon (his words!) Jon Boyd

Plenty of people will tell you to ”step out in faith,” and if that’s what God is telling you to do, no one (least of all me) should tell you otherwise. But of course that’s your very question: is it him calling you to shoulder debt? You’re doing very well to take that question seriously.

There are some questions to ask that you need to answer. But let me start with one or two that I can answer for you. Will debt become a burden? Definitely. It’s certainly a burden that God can help you carry (since he’s good at that), but don’t kid yourself that it won’t inevitably shape your future in one way or another. You should be very sure you must take it on. Should you ”settle down,” as you say some have advised you? Absolutely not. Go nuts, one way or another. But for countless souls, it’s debt that forces them to settle as they struggle to get the monkey off their back.

But here is a set of questions only you can answer, and you must do so honestly:

Are you brilliant, one of the finest students your teachers have ever had? Are your test scores and grades sky high? If not, you should take very seriously the possibility that the prestigious school that has admitted you may be more interested in your tuition dollars than in the plausibility of your success in the program and in Washington. The sad truth is that even the biggest names in higher education run programs that are simply cash cows for them. The debt to underwrite them they leave up to you.

Do you have relationships with any of the faculty in the program you’ve been admitted to? To be successful in a prestigious program, you are going to need the support, even advocacy, of faculty who see you as a “catch“ for the program and who are motivated to advocate for you during and especially after your program. If you lack such connections, can your undergrad professors introduce you to faculty at your prospective school? If they can do so elsewhere, you’re often better off going to a slightly less prestigious school but one at which you’ll have champions in your corner.

Do you expect to benefit from the program itself, from your courses while you’re taking them, from the faculty day by day (not just for future references)? If the benefits are all in where you hope the diploma might take you ”someday,” then debt is a bad idea. Life is too short to grind through classes that aren’t intrinsically beneficial.

Do you know anyone working in Washington now? Can you pay them an extended visit, or at least a series of phone calls to talk about their experience? Ask them whether you can talk with their coworkers and friends, too, whose experience will further broaden your insight. This will help you get at whether you truly do want to work in Washington, or whether your vision might need a reality check.

Can you ask someone who is actually hiring for the kind of job you eventually want to take a look at your resume and advise you whether the only missing piece is a graduate degree of the sort you’re considering borrowing for? If they can sketch other pathways for you to become a desirable hire, then you should consider pursuing those instead of a debt-driven master’s. Don’t believe your prospective school when they tell you their degree will get a job in Washington. Believe it only if people in Washington who are hiring assure you that that degree will give you the break you need.

Debt can be a great investment, but you need to be sure you can finish the degree, benefit from it to the full, and use it to advance a career you can’t pursue without it.


From guest mentor Jean Geran

I’ll start by saying that there are all sorts of ways to work in Washington. A masters in public policy will help but does not guarantee that you will get something. I think it all comes down to whether you believe the Lord is really telling you to do this. Is this what your next step is to be? Are you supposed to go to grad school and get this degree? Is God asking you to take this step of faith? Of course that is easy to say and hard to figure out and I understand that.

If he is really calling you to this and this is a step of obedience and faith, even if it’s a big risk, then you should take it. God honors big steps of faith and putting ourselves out there—especially if we will be totally dependent on him. If instead, it serves to achieve our own goals—we think we’d love to do it and we love studying, if it is just that, then you have to think carefully about whether it is a wise step.

By the way, I encourage anyone who is taking a big step, if you don’t have the money but need the money and you really feel like you are supposed to do this, or even if you are in transition and don’t know what the next step is, take a job—any job (I waitressed)—and work hard at it. God blesses that too. I know some people think, oh, I have a degree, maybe even a master’s, and so I can’t do that, the menial labor, but I did. And God blessed that.

When I went to grad school, literally every semester I had to work to get my expenses covered, knocking on doors, cobbling together little grants and funding, doing whatever work was available. Because I expected to be in the non-profit sector after grad school, I knew I could not take on the type of loans a law or med student can take on and expect to repay. For me, grad school as a whole was an exercise in financial risk and not knowing every few months where the next funding was coming from.

I have many stories of how God took care of things during my those years [We have some of these recorded and will feature them in a future edition of The Well]. Again, if you’re in his will and you’re trying to be obedient, he is there and will provide everything you need. It’s hard, though. It’s easy to talk about now, but it was not easy at the time. You have to somehow figure out if you know it is really something that God is calling you to or if it is just something you want to do yourself. Keep in mind though that these are not necessarily mutually exclusive. God (most often) asks us to do things that really are the core desires of our hearts! You just need to pray for discernment and against fear. No decision based on fear is the right one.

I would also say that seeking counsel and advice from many people is a good thing. But I’ve also learned over the years that even if it is very good and wise counsel it may not be what is right for you at the time. You always must gauge it against what God himself is saying. No matter how good it sounds, if it doesn’t really sit right with you, your own faith, and what you think God has promised or what scriptures have popped out at you, then be careful. Even good counsel may not be the right counsel for you at this time. God trumps other people, even the best ones.

I’m in that position right now. I’m getting some very good advice about a new venture, but it is not all consistent with what the Lord has said he is going to do and what he is promising. I’m trying to sift through what I’m supposed to use and what I’m to ignore right now.

I’m taking a larger financial risk now than I ever have in my life. I find myself retelling stories from grad school as I recall God’s faithfulness. Because of those grad school stories I am able to take this big risk now. Partly due to those lessons from the past, I’m not afraid to take a risk now, ten years later, that could have global impact. Follow your gut and the Holy Spirit. He will never lead you astray. (Proverbs 3:5–6)

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