The Economics of College: Students Open Eyes to the Cost of Debt in College Decisions

By Seth Daniel

There’s a little something that Revere High economics teacher Joe Ciccarello’s students refer to as “Cicc Gold.”

Those little nuggets of information are often off the script of the senior economics class’s textbook curriculum, but they have become likely more helpful to the future of Revere students than any of the discussions they also have about the principles of economics.

One of those nuggets of ‘Cicc Gold’ includes a discussion with the seniors about college, the cost of college and student loan debt.

Such things are often the subject of discussion only after the student has graduated and accumulated tens of thousands of dollars in college debt – all so that they could go to their “dream” school. That has derailed the early lives of an entire generation of young people who have drowned in debt before they have even started making money.

Now, a new generation of student is looking at college, college debt and thinking about a new way to get where they need to go without racking up backbreaking costs.

Ciccarello’s class helps Revere students get there.

And at no time is that more important than over the holiday break and into the new year, when students are beginning to whittle down their choices and figure out where they want to go to college.

“I tell them that one day they are all going to be the CEOs of their own homes, and no one will tell you how to be the CEO,” he said. “If they’re like me and from the inner city, they can go on to repeat the mistakes that their parents made – accumulating too much debt, too many credit cards and too many school loans.

“I talk to the kids about what they want to do and to make a checklist,” he continued. “You have to make sure you take your list and then figure out the school that fits you best, including financially. Most, however, do it exactly the opposite. They make a list of schools and go back and forth between them. Sometimes they never consider the financial piece…I think its better to know what you’re getting into beforehand. We talk about that in class…If they’re informed and thoughtful and decide they know what they’re getting into with an expensive school, it’s better than getting snookered and feeling taken advantage of.”

That’s exactly what a lot of students do end up feeling – coming back with college debt and a diploma, or getting no diploma and still having the debt.

Ciccarello said that’s kind of what motivates him to talk to the kids about what the debt will mean later in life, what the risks are.

“A lot of kids end up going to a community college and getting their feet wet and then transferring to another school,” he said. “That’s sometimes better than going to a school that costs $50,000 a year that could end up being an $80,000 to $100,000 mistake with no rainbow at the end.”

They go so far as to take out a loan calculator and figure out what they will pay and for how long. Many have never thought about the cost of the school, but rather how it fits them and whether it has the right “sound” or “status.”

It’s an eye opener for a lot of students, who learn that the big name may not be the best deal.

Senior Marcus Gomes said the class and the ‘Cicc Gold’ component has changed his life, not only for college choices, but also for learning about investing, the future of the labor market (i.e., robots) and household finance.

“If you find your dream school and the difference is that you will make great networking connections and that’s worth it, then go for it,” he said. “Other than that, I’ve found there is not need to take out a lot of debt that won’t really affect your life later. An education that isn’t Harvard or Boston College will be the same education as just about anywhere else.”

Gomes said before thinking about college from the financial and practical perspective, he was all over the place with no focus.

After making his checklist in class, and figuring out he wanted to go, Gomes said he is going into the break with confidence about his choice in colleges and his future.

“The class changed my life,” he said. “Not only did it help me with my college choice and figuring out where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, but one other thing I took away was to make sure you go into things informed or you will have an unhappy life…This class and (Mr. Ciccarello) helped me to find the alternative of Bryant University to my dream school of Bentley. If Bentley doesn’t work out, I know I have an academic and financial fit in Bryant…The thing is a lot of kids feel they have to go to the dream school no matter what they cost because they were in honors classes or Advanced Placement. I think I learned that’s not the case.”

For Brandon Pham, he’s not exactly sure what he wants to do. However, he has a family background in retail and wholesale business – and he works in the retail industry after school. Ciccarello said he believes Pham is going to be a great entrepreneur one day, but he has to decide the path to get there.

For Pham, he’s taking the conservative approach.

He said he plans to go to North Shore Community College, and then look for business-oriented schools. Maybe, though, he said he might end up being an economics teacher like Ciccarello.

“I do like business and know the retail business well, but eventually I want to be a high school teacher – maybe biology or a school counselor,” he said. “I think you can really make a difference doing that.”

And in the case of Ciccarello and his students, it’s often a difference that makes cents.


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