Q: What is the impact of student debt on young adults today, and how can we as Christians be responsible stewards of our financial resources when we have taken on student loan debt?
A: Ryan Trout ’07, senior director of client service, Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP), Bloomington, Indiana
Chances are you’ve heard that student debt will cause the next economic downward spiral. The story goes like this: Students and their parents take out excessive loans for a private and/or Christian liberal arts degree that costs more than it’s worth in the marketplace. These graduates then struggle to start their post-baccalaureate lives (career, marriage, children, etc.).
Instead of continuing this gloomy narrative, I’d like to provide a perspective that’s less fun for the media to tell, yet much more true for members of the Wheaton family: Going into debt for a degree from Wheaton College enables graduates to make a strong economic and Kingdom impact and is ultimately well worth the investment.
For as long as I can remember, I have had a family member attending Wheaton College. The College has always had a special place in my heart, but when it came time for me to enroll, I couldn’t afford it. So I borrowed, my parents borrowed, and they even dipped into their retirement for me to attend Wheaton. I knew I could have listened to the media telling me to save money and enroll at another college for less, but I knew Wheaton was the right choice for me. Since graduating, I’ve become even more passionate about higher education. After serving as director of admissions at a Christian liberal arts college, I now work for a foundation that provides students in need with additional resources to help repay educational debt. Choosing the “right” college is a very important decision, and I’d like to see more students choosing the best, not just the cheapest, option—even if it means borrowing.
My testimony is that, at Wheaton, I received a valuable education, made lifelong friends and accountability partners, found mentors, and met and eventually married a phenomenal woman, Laura Jahns Trout ’07. My walk with God is better now than ever before, and in a time when many 20-something Christians are leaving the church, my involvement is growing. Financially, with a modest household income, I paid off my loans ahead of schedule, give to the local church, and am proud to be a Wheaton Associate. Healthy stewardship is not measured by how much debt we have, but by what we do with God’s money. I sympathize with graduates who are truly struggling, and my advice is to give back to Wheaton now while living sacrificially and well below your means, at least for a little while. In time, you will not regret being faithful and generous.
For me, taking on student loans to attend Wheaton College is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My four years at Wheaton impacted my job, relationships, and everything else in my life. My degree has provided me with a quality Christian liberal arts education with practical, moral, and spiritual value that’s hard to put a price tag on.
Q: What are the biblical and theological implications regarding debt and financial stewardship, and how can educational loans help character formation?
A: Dr. Richard Schultz, Blanchard Professor of Old Testament
“Two things I ask of you, Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.”
In Proverbs 30:7–9 (NIV, above), Agur is praying for what we might call a “middle class” status. The book of Proverbs positively assesses both wealth—if gained honestly—and poverty— if it is not the result of laziness and foolish decisions. According to Proverbs, the wealthy are to be good stewards of the material blessings that God has entrusted to them, while the poor are confirmed as the objects of his special care and concern (Prov. 14:31, 22:9, 28:27). Throughout its history, Wheaton College alumni have made a Wheaton education affordable for thousands of students through their generous endowment of scholarships and loans; in the words of the sage they thereby “lend money to the Lord” (19:17). Most Wheaton students are unable to afford Wheaton without relying on such supplementary sources of financing, including student loans.
A biblical passage that addresses financial debt is Romans 13:7–8: “Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” This text, however, instructs Christians to repay their debts rather than refusing or defaulting; it does not warn them against incurring debts in the first place.
This is where Agur’s prayer is helpful. Agur is keenly aware of the temptations that can accompany affluence (e.g., self-indulgence and self-reliance) and poverty (e.g., dishonesty and thievery)—behaviors that are dishonoring to God. Accordingly, Agur prays that he might receive from God just enough to get by, thereby learning God-reliance, an appropriate reliance on others, and a sincere appreciation for their faithful provision. Similarly, Wheaton students can experience the same reliance and express the same gratitude (for example, through Wheaton’s annual “Tuition Freedom Day”), that marked Paul in his ministry for Christ (see 2 Cor. 9:12–15 and Phil. 4:10–20). Students can also practice a degree of diligence, self-denial, and careful financial stewardship both while at Wheaton and while working to pay off student debts that can benefit them throughout their lives (see Prov. 16:26; 21:5, 17; 28:19–20).
Q: How, financially, was it possible for your children to attend Wheaton, and why was the financial investment in a Wheaton education “worth it” for you as a family?
A: Maurice and Julia Henderson (sons Julian '14 and Maurice '12)
We paid for Wheaton through scholarships, family support, and student income. The nine years our sons lived, studied, and worked at Wheaton College increased and matured our faith in Jesus Christ. The journey for our sons, as young black men, was not easy, but it was a part of God’s molding them into his image and preparing them for service in his kingdom. We have seen the love of God manifested in ways we never dreamed possible. The opportunities for spiritual and academic growth and service for our sons have been exponential. Both of our sons have graduated and are in the field they believe their Wheaton education prepared them to step into with a high level of skill and confidence, yet with a growing understanding of their need for continued lifelong learning.
A: John ’89 and Lisa Biedebach (son Jacob ’17)
We started off saving in a 529 plan and made some other investments, and we were able to save enough to pay for the first year. I took on a second job, and we have borrowed some as well. As an alumnus, I had a natural affinity to Wheaton. My wife also at-tended a small Christian college and we both wanted that kind of experience for our kids. The “Wheaton experience,” which encompasses not only classes, but also dorm life, HoneyRock, and extracurricular activities, enables students to think critically and develop into people capable of leading the church and the world through the challenges that are here today and coming in the future. We want our kids to help build Christ’s kingdom here on earth through participation in business, ministry, government, and family. Wheaton is not the only college training students for that, but when you compare the facilities, faculty, academic rigor, quality of the student body, and cost versus other high-caliber schools, Wheaton is the obvious choice.
A: Jeff and AlisonThorfeldt Oslund ’86 (children J. J. ’12, Erika Oslund Tuttle ’13, Bridget ’15, Zach ’19)
With six children, we didn’t see how it would be possible for all of our children to have the opportunity to go to Wheaton, but we prayed about it as a couple and as a family, and God has provided in practical and unexpected ways. Our children have applied for and received scholarships and grants, we have taken advantage of all of the loans offered through Wheaton’s financial aid package, and we have taken out personal loans through our bank and credit union. Our children have used their own savings, we’ve used our savings, and two of our children have been able to graduate early, in part due to credit earned from Advanced Placement courses taken in high school. Thankfully, God has also surprised us with help from unexpected sources, including gifts to our children from family.
The financial investment to allow our kids to have a Wheaton education has definitely been worth it. We’ve seen significant spiritual, mental, and emotional growth in our children who have attended Wheaton. J. J. ’12 and Erika ’13 are both married to Wheaton alumni who love Jesus and are committed to and active in their local churches, and both received great job offers before or right after graduation. We’d encourage other parents and students to not let the price tag discourage them from considering Wheaton College. Pray and see how God will provide—He might surprise you!
A: Dr. Hal and Katherine Walters (daughter Grace ’14)
We were blessed with the means to pay Grace’s tuition comfortably with parent income and savings, so we became Wheaton Associates and regular contributors early on to help others who did not have our resources. We did this also because we believe that Wheaton is sincere and true to their mission.
It was important to us that Grace have a broad-based and challenging liberal arts education within a robust and overtly Christian context. Though she sweated bullets at times, Grace was delighted by her Wheaton experience for four consecutive years. She was befriended, accepted, inspired, and challenged by bright Christian peers. The Christian community at Wheaton was an important continuation of the way we tried to raise Grace during her pre-college years. Grace grew spiritually, matured academically, made life-long Christian friends, and had many opportunities to serve others in meaningful ways. Wheaton is a superior Christian academic institution that is true to its mission of serving Christ and His Kingdom.
Q: Why was the financial investment in a Wheaton education “worth it?”
A: Tiffany Staples ’06, English teacher, Zion Township High School, Zion, Ill.
Method of payment: Parent and student loans, student income
Major: English literature with secondary education certification
There were experiences I had at Wheaton I never would have had anywhere else. I don’t look at paying loans back as a sacrifice in a negative way—it’s just where I am now, a part of the process. With the amount I took out I am quite comfortable knowing these are the monthly payments I have to make. I remember these payments are only temporary, and when I look at what I gained from my Wheaton experience and where I am today, I don’t see it as a bad thing. It comes down to the excellence of scholarship provided by Wheaton College, and also the College’s focus on helping individuals truly be salt and light to the world. I know there are other Christian colleges that have that focus as well, but I value my Wheaton education more now than ever.
A: David Woo '07, literature teacher, Urban Prep Academy, Chicago, Ill.
Method of payment: Grants, scholarships, parent income and loans, student income and loans
Major: English literature with secondary education certification
It was thanks to my education at Wheaton that I am currently teaching on the South Side of Chicago. Not only was I equipped with what I needed in order to be successful as an educator, I have also been blessed by my Wheaton friendships more than I could ever hope—none more than the one I share with my wife, Grace Cho Woo ’07. And I am moving on to more advanced degrees: I am a few weeks away from earning my master’s degree at University of Illinois at Chicago without taking out any more loans, and will be fully funded in my pursuit of a Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University this fall. It may have been financially challenging to attend Wheaton, but the skills I gained at Wheaton have made it possible for me to be financially stable after leaving. It hasn't been easy to pay back higher education loans, but I still believe that it was worth the investment.
A: Sam Gyorfi ’05, master’s in Christian Formation and Soul Care student, Denver Seminary
Method of payment: Grants, student income, savings, and loans
Major: Christian formation and ministry
I took on student loans all four years while attending Wheaton because, as a student-athlete, I knew that postponing my education would hinder my ability to compete at the NCAA level. As I continue to pay off my school loans into my 30s, there are times the payments frustrate me. However, looking back to my time at Wheaton, there are a number of invaluable things that I am reminded of as I make my monthly payments: the spiritual growth and maturation I went through, the relationships formed both with professors and peers, my athletic experience and success, and the foundation Wheaton gave me for life. While making payments may not be ideal, I would not change my time at Wheaton to remove that debt, ever.