Young people are currently being faced with two sides of the same harsh coin. On one side of the coin are the glittery promises of the ivory tower — college, presented as the next logical step after high school, the single route to prosperity and success, and a beacon of respectability and accomplishment. CNN recently published info that makes it explicitly clear that the prospects of stable employment without a bachelor’s degree are bleak. Results like these suggest that if you didn’t go to college, you’re more than likely a modern day scrub. Even the army is relying on this reality to recruit would-be students hoping to finance their education among their ranks.
The other side of this shitty coin is a lot less shiny, as it represents the massive amounts of student loan debt that so many of us are struggling to pay off after getting our coveted degrees. About 70% of students have to borrow in order to pay for school. And upon graduating, most of that steady income we’re so supposed to be so grateful to snag is dedicated to the slow, uphill battle to relieve ourselves of the debt. For many of us this means more than sacrificing our pizza and weed budget for a few years. Some of us are paying the same amount that rent or a mortgage would cost us well into our 40s and 50s in order to stay on top of brutal interest rates and repayment plans that don’t even acknowledge death as a valid reason not to pay up.
Higher education has developed a reputation in our society that surpasses its primary purpose which is to educate students and qualify them to enter society as productive adults. College is an understood cultural experience that has been normalized just like primary and secondary education. To not participate in that culture comes with a dull stigma that I’ve seen many of my peers endure. I remember the naive confusion I harbored when I realized that some of the other students in my 12th grade class hadn’t even applied to school, let alone made plans to attend. My grandmother was a teacher since before I was born and by the time I was a senior in high school my much older sister has followed suit. My single mother was a returning student in a nursing program. Education was a huge deal to my family and doing anything other than attending college in the immediate months following my graduation was completely out of the question. But damnit it should have been. Because while college has become a normalized part of our socialization, suggesting that everyone should do it, not everyone can afford it.
And what’s more is that not everyone is ready for it at the ripe age of 17 or 18. I was a pretty good student all through high school. I scored well on my ACT and maintained at least a B average. I was accepted into all of the universities I applied to. It still took me six years to complete my bachelor’s after a fumbled attempt in the sciences, a bout of depression, being kicked out of one school, discovering gender studies, and transferring to another, private, more expensive school. In addition to being broke with not even the slightest understanding of finance, I was immature, naive, and a little irresponsible. At the end of the ordeal, I had $70,000 in student loan debt. Four years and a master’s degree (which tacked on another $20,000 to my bill with the US Department of Education) out, I’ve yet to have a job that pays $70,000.
Knowing that I could have saved myself some time and a lot money of money if I’d had my shit together is a particularly bitter spot for me. But the truth is that even if I had done everything right, I would have still amassed about $40-50,000 in student loans, not including grad school. Which makes me think that doing college “right” isn’t such a good idea. There is a middle ground between skirting a bachelor’s degree altogether which bars you access to a solid career, and taking a huge “L” with student loans. And it’s this middle route that I would have taken if I hadn’t felt so much pressure — and admittedly, excitement — to have a “normal” college experience.
Even though I side eyed my peers that didn’t immediately traipse off to a four-year institution to drink too much and sleep in extra long twin sized beds, I know now that there isn’t a more acceptable time to be a scrub than in your late teens and early 20s. No one expects an 18-year-old to have their shit together in the same way they do as soon as undergrads step foot off of their college graduation stage. No one is going to ask, “So what are you planning to do with that?” when inquiring about a high school diploma. It’s too late for me to go live with mom now — mainly because sex and privacy mean way too much to me at 28 — but I would definitely would have spent the first two years after high school at home. I would have continued working and core classes at a community college would have been my first step towards a bachelor’s degree. This alone would have cut my overall education expenses in half. To hell with the pitying looks from the well-to-do folks who felt like I was missing out, or worse, slacking off at life.
I can’t help but think that if I had taken the time to learn the value of a dollar, which I had still managed to take for granted even in my barely middle class household, I would be in a very different financial situation today. My loans could already be a thing of the past. I could have something that’s unimaginable to me now: savings. Not to mention, I probably wouldn’t have been so naive as to think that I should major in the sciences after failing AP calculus and barely getting a C in AP biology. I would have maybe been mature enough to see that my knack for writing could be combined with my tendency to question sexism and put to good use professionally. In case you haven’t noticed, I eventually reached that conclusion anyway, but I could have done it without breaking the bank and my own spirits along the way.