We live across the creek from Northwestern University. Huge gift, great neighbors. Son-in-law, Drew Shepp, worked there for seven years. Daughter Erikka met Drew at Concordia University. Our young adult ministry has included many students from Bethel and Northwestern. I love hearing stories of how Christian schools turned around rebels.


Still I struggle. One Tuesday night I had students stand who had debts over $30,000. Too many. Nobody warned them that they would be strapped for years with an unwieldy debt and a salary too small to deal with it. I’ve heard the discussion regarding good and bad debt. I’d call that bad! What’s the answer? Pay cash or don’t go.


What? And sacrifice Christian values? I went to a Christian school my first year, then spent three years at UCLA. I grew there, where I was challenged by a Christian organization to live my faith, and I left with no debt. I’ve heard the statistic about 70% of evangelical youth losing their faith in secular colleges. That’s more about the flavor of the home than the school. No question: a Christian school can spark vibrant faith. It can also lull non-aggressive types to sleep. Check out the dormitory on Sunday morning!


I met with a Financial Aid Director and told him I viewed the problem from the other side. I asked him to please exercise caution when handing out loans to naïve students with no idea what it would feel like to be married, with a child, paying for an apartment, groceries, and a $30,000 debt. (That’s common!) He understood. The difficulty—Christian schools struggle with the bottom line. They need students.


The other side—graduates need a life. I tell young men: “Get a job, get a house, get a wife, get a kid—in that order! That potential is hampered by massive loans. Scripture warns against unwise spending: “Owe no man anything except to love one another” (Rom. 13:8). “Do not be among those who give pledges, among those who become guarantors for debts. If you have nothing with which to pay, why should he take your bed from under you?” (Prov. 22:26,27). “He who puts up security for another will surely suffer, but whoever refuses to strike hands in pledge is safe” (Prov. 11:15). Jesus urges us to consider if we have resources enough to complete a project (Luke 14:28).


Parents: degrees from Christian colleges do not guarantee that your graduate will be a Christian, will get a good job, or a good spouse, or find success. Some parents are shocked after a four-year college degree is followed by a job at Wendy’s.


Dads and Moms do better at what many parents pay a college to do—give wisdom about a career, guide through transitional young adult years, teach about emotional and mental health, give solid Christian values, and instruct how to not arouse love before its time. Upgrade your time with and commitment to your young adult—before they are young adults. Be vulnerable about your struggles. Ask specific questions about whom they’re spending late nights with. (College kids stay up late). If they ask, “Don’t you trust me?” answer, “Of course not. That is why I am asking!”


Trust your shepherding more than the sheepskin! Then you won’t be surprised, because character is translated into career, no matter what school they attend. And if it’s a Christian school—fantastic!

4 comments on “THE DEBT DISEASE

  1. Adriana says:

    Paul, I am so glad you wrote about this! I was shocked when I left school with so much debt!

  2. Thanks so much for your wise words, this post reaffirmed my choosing a secular University (with my parents’ guidance) and attending InterVarsity Christian Fellowship! Going to a secular University really taught me to live out my faith for real. Not to mention, I have half the debt (and it is manageable).
    I appreciate someone from the Christian community shedding light on this subject!

  3. dreck07 says:

    I have also read about good debt and bad debt. The difference is that good debt makes you money. If you end up after college with $30k in debt and a $20k/year job, that’s bad debt. But if you end up with $50k in debt and an $80k/year job, I would call that good debt.

    We’ve had the priviledge of putting our four sons through college, two through public universities and two through Christian colleges. Even though the sticker price for the Christian colleges was much higher than, for instance, the University of MN, the actual price (after scholarships) was about the same. There are less expensive public schools, but we’ve found that the family backgrounds of students at those schools is very different from our family’s. The result is that our sons had difficulty making friends there – they just didn’t fit in.

    Our youngest son is attending Gustavus. There he’s among the less affluent students, but he’s surrounded by classmates who are befriending him and pushing him academically. We couldn’t be more pleased. And when he graduates, he’ll be very well connected; there’s no burger flipping in his future.

    By all means, count the cost before entering college. But our experience is that attending a college with a good culture fit is paramount. And don’t just ask about how many of the graduating students from a college get jobs within a few months, ask what the average salary is. That will help sort out good debt from bad.

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