Was it Worth it? Using Student Loans to Finance a College Degree


  • William Nuckols Old Dominion University
  • Kim E. Bullington Old Dominion University
  • Dennis E. Gregory Old Dominion University




student loans, student financial aid, debt, degree satisfaction, qualitative research


This qualitative study explores the perceptions of value added to the lives of graduates who borrowed money to fund their college educations. Through the lens of cognitive dissonance theory, five themes emerged. Overall, the study participants agreed that the ability to take on student loans to fund their education was worth it, but on the other hand feel overburdened with the cost of paying back their loans.  This paper also provides a foundation for future research and identifies public policy shortcomings and suggests solutions.  


Akers, B., & Chingos, M. M. (2018). Game of loans: The rhetoric and reality of student debt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Alexander, F. K. (Spring, 2011). Maintenance of state effort for higher education: Barriers to equal education opportunity in addressing the rising costs of a college education. Journal of Education Finance, 36(4), 442-450.

Archibald, R. B., & Feldman, D. H. (2018). Drivers of the rising price of a college education. Minneapolis, MN: Midwestern Higher Education Compact.

Aronson, P. (2017). Contradictions in the American dream: High educational aspirations and perceptions of deteriorating institutional support. International Journal of Pscyhology, 52(1), 49-57.

Baez, B. (2013). An economy of higher education. In J. L. Devitis (Ed.) Contemporary colleges and universities: A reader (pp. 307-321). New York: Peter Lang.

Barr, A., & Turner, S. (2013). Expanding enrollments and contracting state budgets: The effect of the Great Recession on higher education. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 650(1), 168-193.

Baum, S., & Schwartz, S. (2014). Student aid, student behavior, and educational attainment. In B. L. Castleman, S. Schwartz, & S. Baum (Eds.) Decision making for student success: Behavioral insights to improve college access and persistence (38-62). New York: Routledge.

Blagg, K., & Blom, E. (2018). Evaluating the return on investment in higher education: An assessment of individual- and state-level returns. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (2019). Consumer credit – G.19. Retrieved from https://www.federalreserve.gov/releases/g19/current/.

Boatman, A., Evans, B., & Soliz, A. (2016). Understanding student loan aversion in education: Evidence from high school seniors, community college students, and adults. CEPA Working Paper No. 16-15. Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis.

Burdman, P. (2005, October). The student debt dilemma: Debt aversion as a barrier to college access. (Discussion Paper)

Byrne, J. A. (2018, August 11). US students may collectively owe $2T in loans by 2021. The New York Post. Retrieved from https://nypost.com/2018/08/11/us-students-may-collectively-owe-2t-in-loans-by-2021/.

Camerer, C. F., & Loewenstein, G. (2004). Behavioral economics: Past, present, future. In C. F. Camerer, G. Loewenstein, & M. Rabin (Eds.) Advances in Behavioral Economics (pp. 3-52). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Carlson, R. H., & McChesney, C. S. (2015). Income sustainability through educational attainment. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 3(1), 108-115.

Castleman, B. L., Baum, S., & Schwartz, S. (2015). Behavioral economics and postsecondary access: A primer. In B. L. Castleman, S. Schwartz, & S. Baum (Eds.) Decision making for student success: Behavioral insights to improve college access and persistence (pp. 1-20). New York: Routledge.

Combe, P. (2009, May 15). What the federal government owes student borrowers. Chronicle of Higher Education, 55(36). Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/What-the-Federal-Government/44352.

Cooper, J. (2007). Cognitive dissonance: 50 years of a classic theory. Los Angeles, SAGE Publications.

Cunningham, A. F., & Santiago, D. A. (2008). Student aversion to borrowing: Who borrows and who doesn’t. Washington D.C.: Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Dembecki, M. (2019, June 2), ED expected to nix gainful employment reg soon. Community College Daily. Retrieved from: http://www.ccdaily.com/2019/06/ed-expected-nix-gainful-employment-reg-soon/.

DeSilver, D. (2018). U.S. students’ academic achievement still lags that of their peers in many other countries. Washington, D.C.: Pew Research Center.

Dillman, D. A., Smythe, J. D., & Christian, L. M. (2014). Internet, phone, mail, and mixed mode surveys: The tailored design method. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Drezner, N. D., Pizmony-Levy, O, & Pallas, A. (2018). Americans’ views of higher education as a public and private good. New York, NY: Teachers College: Columbia University.

Durband, D. B., & Britt, S. L. (2012). Student financial literacy: Campus-based program development. New York: Springer.

Experian (2018). Student loan debt reaches all-time high in 2018. Retrieved from https://www.experian.com/blogs/ask-experian/state-of-student-loan-debt/.

Farber, H. S. (2011). Job loss in the Great Recession: Historical perspective from the displaced workers survey, 1984-2010. Cambridge, MA: NBER.

Federal Student Aid. (2019). Public service loan forgiveness data. Retrieved from https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/about/data-center/student/loan-forgiveness/pslf-data.

Federal Reserve Bank of New York. (2018). Quarterly report on household debt and credit, 2018: Q3. Retrieved from https://www.newyorkfed.org/medialibrary/interactives/householdcredit/data/pdf/hhdc_2018q3.pdf.

Fergus, D. (2018). Land of the fee: Hidden costs and the decline of the American middle class. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Festinger, L. (1957). A theory of cognitive dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Fulwiler, S., Kelton, S., Ruetschlin, C., & Steinbaum, M. (2018). The macroeconomic effects of student debt cancellation. Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: Levy Economics Institute.

Gbadamosi, A. (2009). Cognitive dissonance: The implicit explication in low-income consumers’ shopping behaviour for “low-involvement” grocery products. International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management, 37(12), 1077-1095.

Gladieux, L. E., King, J. E., & Corrigan, M. E. (2005). The federal government and higher education. In P. G. Altbach, R. O. Berdahl, & P. Gumport (Eds.), American higher education in the twenty-first century: Social, political, and economic challenges. (2nd ed.). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Greenfield, J. S. (2015). Challenges and opportunities in the pursuit of college finance literacy. The High School Journal, 98(4), 316-336.

Hensley, B., Galilee-Belfer, M, & Lee, J. J. (2013). What is the greater good? The discourse on public and private rules of higher education in the new economy. The Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 35(5), 553-567.

Higher Education Act 20 U.S.C. 1070-1099 (1965).

Hillman, N. W., Tandberg, D. A., & Gross, J. P. K. (2014). Performance funding in higher education: Do financial incentives impact college completions? The Journal of Higher Education, 85(6).

Holtschneider, D. H. (2008, May). Colleges should teach students how to borrow wisely. Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(34). Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/article/Colleges-Should-Teach-Students/5140.

Iloh, C. (2018). Not non-traditional, the new normal: Adult learners and the role of student affairs in supporting older college students. Journal of Student Affairs, XXVII, 25-30.

Johnson, M. (2016). Raising the bar on efforts to increase financial capability among college students. In J. Liebowitz (ed.), Financial literacy education: Addressing student, business, and government needs (pp. 91-110). Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Kelchen, R. (2018). Higher education accountability. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Kenney, D. (Producer), & Ramis, H. (Director). (1980). Caddyshack [Motion picture]. United States: Orion Pictures.

Kraut, R., Olson, J., Banaji, M., Bruckman, A., Cohen, J., & Couper, M. (2004). Psychological research online: Report of Board of Scientific Affairs Advisor Group on the conduct of research on the internet. American Psychologist, 59, 105-117.

Kuzma, A. T., Kuzma, J. R., & Thiewes, H. F. (2010, April). An examination of business students’ student loan debt and total debt. American Journal of Business Education, 3(4), 71-77.

Levine, A. (2001). Higher education as a mature industry. In P. G. Altbach, P. J. Gumport, & D. B. Johnstone (Eds.), In defense of American higher education (pp. 38-58). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lobo, B. J., & Burke-Smalley, L. A. (2018). An empirical investigation of the financial value of a college degree. Education Economics, 26(1), 78-92.

Manning, K. (2018). Organizational theory in higher education (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Miles, M. B., Huberman, A. M., & Saldaña, J. (2020). Qualitative data analysis: A methods sourcebook. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Miller, J. J., & Nikaj, S. (2018). Student loan debt, educational attainment, and tenure choice. Education Economics, 26(4), 393-410.

Mitchell, M., Leachman, M. Masterson, K, & Waxman, S. (2018). Unkept promises: State cuts to higher education threaten access and equity. Washington, DC: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Moody’s Investors Service. (2011). U. S. private loan securitizations: 2012 outlook. New York, NY: Moody’s.

Mueller, H. M., & Yannelis, C. (2019). The rise in student loan defaults. Journal of Financial Economics, 131(1), 1-19.

Noble, H., & Smith, J. (2015). Issues of validity and reliability in qualitative research. Evidence-Based Nursing, 18(2).

Nuckols, W. L. (2016). The perception of value added from accruing student debt to earn a degree or graduate certificate from a public institution of higher education: A descriptive study. Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) Dissertation, Educ. Foundations & Leadership, Old Dominion University. Retrieved from: https://digitalcommons.odu.edu/efl_etds/10.

Oliver, R. L. (1997). Satisfaction: A behavioral perspective on the consumer. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Popesescu, G. H. (2017). Does student debt constitute a bubble that may bring about an educational crisis? Educational Philosophy and Theory, 50(2), 115-118.

Privitera, G. J., & Ahlgrim-Delzell, L. (2019). Research methods for education. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Robb, C. A. (2017). College student financial stress: Are the kids alright? Journal of Family and Economic Issues, 38(4), 514-527.

Sacerdote, B. (2017). Fifty years of growth in American consumption, income, and wages. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.

Sawhill, I. V. (2018). Higher education and the opportunity gap. Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Scott-Clayton, J. E. (2018). The looming student loan default crisis is worse than we thought. Washington, DC: Center on Children and Families at Brookings.

Sibson, K. B. (2014). Impact of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill: An examination of retention of first year students in the Hampton Roads area. Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D). Dissertation. Educational Foundations & Leadership, Old Dominion University. Retrieved from: https://digitalcommons.odu.edu/efl_etds/62.

Smith, C., & Barboza, G. (2014, June). The role of trans-generational financial knowledge and self-reported financial literacy on borrowing practices and debt accumulation of college students. Journal of Personal Finance, 13(2), 28-50

Snyder, T. D. (2012). Digest of educational statistics 2011. Washington DC: Institute for Education Statistics and the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Stoll, M. A. (2013). Great Recession spurts a shift to local moves. Providence, RI: US 2010 Project.

Tandberg, D. A., & Hillman, N. A. (2014). State higher education performance funding: Data, outcomes, and policy implications. Journal of Education Finance, 39(3).

U. S. Federal Reserve. (2017). Report on the economic well-being of U.S. households in 2016 -May 2017. Retrieved from https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/2017-economic-well-being-of-us-households-in-2016-education-debt-loans.htm.

Wei, C. C. (2010). Trends in undergraduate Stafford Loan borrowing: 1989-90 to 2007-08. NCES 2010-183. Washington, DC: National Center for Educational Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.




How to Cite

Nuckols, W., Bullington, K. E., & Gregory, D. E. (2020). Was it Worth it? Using Student Loans to Finance a College Degree . Higher Education Politics &Amp; Economics, 6(1), 1–19. https://doi.org/10.32674/hepe.v6i1.1358



Research Papers