Challenging conformity was a daunting task, but Ilgunas never wavered in his decision. It was a lonely pursuit, but the New York native focused on finishing his education and working part-time by tutoring students or volunteering in paid medical studies.
"I had no choice but to maintain discipline," he said. "I was close to bankrupt for much of my first semester, so I just didn't have the money for unnecessary things or to go out to eat. After a while, once I got used to the van's inconveniences."
Most students are woefully unaware of the
ballooning effect of student loans
credit card debt
, how interested is calculated or why they should keep their borrowing to a minimum, Ilgunas said.
"Going into college, I knew almost nothing about these things," he said. "I didn't even know what 'interest' was. I'd had minimum wage jobs, so I wasn't completely unfamiliar with the value of a dollar. But that didn't at all prepare me to think through taking out a five-digit loan. My priority at the time was to get into the best school I could, no matter the cost, which is not advice I'd give to young folks now."
With funding to state college and universities being reduced and the cost of tuition being increased since many institutions are building "lavish new facilities," students need to learn the basics of finance, Ilgunas said.
"You have high tuition and 17-year-olds making financial decisions while the concept of 'debt' is still very abstract to them," he said. "This is why I went $18,000 in debt in my first year alone."
Instead of accruing thousands of dollars in student loan debt, Ilgunas advises students to seek alternatives for a good, yet affordable education. Since many students cannot avoid having to take on debt to pay for college, Ilgunas recommends that students limit the total amount to $25,000 or less and to consider whether their field leads to a career with a decent salary.
"Of course, I would suggest taking out no loans, but that's probably not realistic for most people," he said. "Leaving with more debt is reasonable for people studying things that will lead to a lucrative career. I would definitely suggest not taking out $50,000 in loans if you're studying the liberal arts."