No one walks across that stage after 18 years and says to themselves, “I want to go to college and graduate with debt.” Seriously, no one in their right mind would say that, yet it’s exactly what many of us do. Regardless of the occupation or our reasonable chances of landing a job in our field of study, thousands of high schoolers venture off to college each fall with the hopes of receiving a higher education.

Many of them are there to party. I’ll admit there was a lot of partying my freshman year, but more importantly, I was there for what I thought would position me to accumulate the kind of wealth I never knew as a child. For me, going to college was a way out. It was a way to get a great paying job, make enough money to pay the bills, finance many of my wants, and simply a way to get ahead. I was delusional, nonetheless.

College provided many great experiences for which I’m thankful for and I learned plenty, but one thing I wasn’t anticipating was the pain associated with the debt I’d still be carrying a decade later. I don’t think any high school student is seeking that type of burden, but they should very well plan on dealing with it if they haven’t figured out a way to finance college without student loans.

So, what does life look like now?

I’ll admit, life is very different from how I grew up, but it’s not at all what I anticipated. All together my undergrad and graduate experience cost me a little over $80,000. That’s about fifty percent more than my annual salary. While I’m not struggling to pay the bills, I’m nowhere near attaining the wealth I planned to build someday.

Unfortunately, I can’t blame anyone but myself for these gross miscalculations. I thought financing my way through school towards a better life would be worth it, but now I realize a better life comes to those who work for it — not those who finance it. Financing all of our dreams or education costs seems like a good idea when you’re trying desperately to get ahead, but once it’s all said and done, you’ve done nothing but contribute to the problem.

Would I do it all over again?

I actually would, but I wouldn’t finance things unrelated to my education. Did I really need the largest dining plan? Did I really need to stay in expensive on-campus housing? Did I really need all the other things I squandered my student loan money on? The answer is a resounding no. This isn’t something I thought about during those moments, but it’s something I very well think about now that I’m paying interest – especially the high interest on my private student loans

I know I’m not the only millennial out here who feels like they’ve been duped with this entire higher education experience. It’s not the experience in and of itself, but it’s the expense associated with it. The one question you hear over and over again during high school is, “Are you going to college?” The question one should ask is, “Are you willing to pay on debt for 10+ years for a degree you may or may not use?”

If that question were asked, I’d have a different perspective to present today. Unfortunately, the point I present today is that no one really wants to graduate with debt. No one wants to receive a degree and six months later receive a bill that’s more than their starting salary. No high school student in their right mind is going to tell you, “When I graduate from college, I want to be in debt.” If you hear otherwise, send them to me.

For those looking for a better life or those who simply want to make a difference in the world, I’d encourage them to work for it. It includes more than just writing essays, late night cram sessions, and completing mid-term finals. We have to be willing to do more than that if we really want to graduate from college with all of our dreams intact.

We must be willing to turn over every stone — scholarships, grants, part-time jobs, online jobs, freelance jobs —  whatever it takes, to finance our educations. Once that is done, then and only then should we consider carrying the weight of five- to six-figure debt. If your occupation and outcome outweigh the pain it will take to shoulder this burden, I say go for it. If not, I urge each of you to reconsider.