Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The American Dream and Education: College Without Debt

I work at a private, VERY expensive graduate school, and most of the students have come to our school straight from undergrad. Many of them haven’t worked full-time and the work they’ve had has been low-paying work – retail, babysitting – not something one can make a living off of – at least not a middle-class living. You know there are people supporting entire families off of retail, right?

TOO MANY of these students aren’t prepared for the rigors of graduate school, or life in the workforce after graduation. And it’s not that these aren’t good candidates – these students are great on paper. They have high grades, an interest in serving their communities. They want to make a difference in the world and they have brains. But so many of them have had a very nice lifestyle given to them by their parents, and their parents have held their hands through much of life (you know, helicopter parents). They were raised by parents who didn’t ask them to get jobs in high school and college because they believed that their child should be allowed to focus on school and personal fulfillment/development. I don’t think that these parents were lazy or didn’t care about their kids – in fact, I think they care very much and worked very hard to provide a happy life for their family. But I think their parents bought into the American Dream, just like most of us have (including myself). Unfortunately, many of these children became adults who struggle mightily with the pressures and hard work it takes to survive in this world.

Me? I went to a junior college on scholarships and grants, so I got two years of college for FREE. I then transferred to a state university. Much less prestigious than the schools many of my friends went to, but a solid education nonetheless and at a fraction of the cost. This was funded via grants and small loans. I didn’t finish my bachelor’s degree. I got pregnant with our oldest child, dropped out and joined the work force. I wish I had finished because that degree could have helped me at times, but I have earned a good living even without it.

How did I do such a thing? I developed good work experience during high school and college – it wasn’t that well paid but it taught me a lot. I developed skills, learned how to navigate the workforce, and built a resume. It was that experience that got me into my first full-time job and from there, each job added to my marketability. Now? I’ve been working full-time since 1999 and make a good living, in a good job – and I still don’t have my bachelor’s degree! I waited to go back to school until I had tuition reimbursement, and until I found a degree I was willing to invest in. I finance my education with a mixture of tuition reimbursement, grants (finally pays to be working class with kids, woo hoo!) and a very small amount in loans.

I know quite a few people who have master’s degrees and are unable to command the salary I can because they simply don’t yet have the experience and skill I’ve developed. I also know people with graduate degrees who can’t find work, not even crappy work. The economy right now is a tough and very competitive place, and that is really unfortunate for those who have invested so much in expensive educations – especially if they did it with loans that aren’t paid back yet. Now, I do want to finish my bachelor’s degree and I’m considering getting a master’s degree. But I won’t do it if my only option for paying is loans. I have seen over and over that loans are crippling the young adults who have been told that prestigious degrees are their ticket to success.

Read the first part of this series, The American Dream and Education: Wanting Better for Our Kids.

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