When I was in high school, there was no question as to whether or not college was a good investment. It was very clearly communicated to me by parents, teachers, and other school staff that because I got good grades and was a motivated human being, I needed to go to college. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Neither of my parents have four-year college degrees, and that’s not too out of the ordinary for their generation. On the flipside, I can already see that people a few years younger than me are starting to consider other options than the traditional four-year college route in an effort to combat the crippling debt that many of my peers have been plagued with. For my husband and I, paying off our student debt was a hard, ugly, exhausting battle. And amidst the fight, we had some very strong opinions about college and the role it plays in our society. Now that our debt is paid, and I’m a little less emotionally charged about the whole thing, I’ve been able to evaluate my degree with a little less bias.
The reality is that my first few jobs out of college did not require a Bachelor’s degree, nor did they pay like they did. Shortly after graduating college, I applied to 60+ jobs. That is not a hyperbole – I could show you the list right now. I started off applying to the ideal jobs then as time passed, I started applying to positions that I was overqualified for, and after being unemployed for longer than I could afford, I ended up taking a job that paid barely above minimum wage. And while struggling to pay for the basics like rent, food, and gas with that minimum wage paycheck, my husband and I both had student loan payments to squeeze into the budget every month. I was frustrated for a long time that I had paid so much for a degree that was getting me nowhere – it didn’t seem worth it.
I continued applying to better jobs and seeking opportunities to improve my employment situation. After a rough couple years of job hopping, my husband and I both got to a place where we were working at full-time, average-paying, “big kid” jobs that allowed us to put some serious dollars towards our debt. We managed to pay off our student loans by the time we were four years out of college. It wasn’t easy, but it feels like one of the greatest accomplishments I have ever achieved. I feel proud that I not only earned my degree, but I paid for it! And now that I have a paid-for degree that I am actually using in my current job, I appreciate it a lot more. I wouldn’t be who I am or where I am without the education I received in college (in and out of the classroom).
A college degree is more than a literal piece of paper. It’s an intangible accreditation that is supposed to prove that I have gained a certain amount of knowledge. It’s something that I have earned that can never be taken away from me, and that is something I do value. I know that because I have that degree on my resume, I will always have a leg-up from someone without it. And the truth is, while my degree is in Public and Nonprofit Administration, I learned a lot more in college than how to work in a nonprofit. I learned time and task management, general professionalism, writing skills, how to meet deadlines, how to be proactive, etc. More importantly, I learned who I was, what I believed, and what types of people bring value to my life. Sure, those things can happen anywhere, but college campuses are like an incubator for that kind of personal growth, if you are intentional about it. I loved being surrounded by other driven, motivated people that were pursuing a future they were passionate about. It created a sense of accountability, and it rubbed off on me.
Looking back, I wish I would have put more time and intentional thought into why I was going to college, how I was going to pay for it, and how it would benefit me. I would never take back the experience I had, the things I learned, or the relationships I built (especially my marriage!), but I can’t, in good conscience, recommend college as a blanket “good choice” for high school students considering their options. Knowing what I know now, I will never pursue further education unless I can do it without going into debt.
I know people that never went to college and have developed great careers. I know people that worked multiple jobs while going to school to pay for it as they went. I also know people whose parents paid for their entire education, and student debt was never a concern. And I know people that are deep in debt from attending a private college and now aren’t using their degree at all. There should be a lot of thought and consideration put into the decision because we’ve all been dealt different hands in life, and we must deal with the cards we’ve been dealt.