Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Cost of Institutional Education

Good published an interesting article highlighting the work of photographer Brittany M. Powell. Ms. Powell chose to photograph average Americans who are struggling with debt and to share their stories, putting faces with the statistics.

Reading through the article, I saw a common thread for most of the individuals who are struggling under the burden of debt - college. It seems that being a full-time college student puts you in more debt than you are able to pay with the job you get once you graduate.

I went to college and even grad school. But I wasn't the traditional student. For part of my college career, I worked full-time and attended school part time. Later, I stayed home to raise my children and took classes when I was able. I didn't get my undergraduate degree until I was 40. My diploma looks like any other graduate's diploma. You can't tell that I did it part time. The only difference, which you can't see, is that I did it debt free.

I was able to go to school and not incur any debt because I went on what I call the "pay as you go" plan. Unfortunately, there's a stigma to doing it this way. Those who have the privilege of going full time tend to look down on part-time students as "less than." It seems that the "best" way to do it is to live on campus, immerse yourself full-time in studies, and then party with your friends when you're not in class or working on assignments. 

This inferior attitude was reinforced by a professor I had at my community college. He said we shouldn't have community colleges as they aren't "real" colleges. As he said that, I sat in my desk stunned. It was an evening class and I looked around at my classmates. I was sure that every single one of them had worked hard all day and were tired. Yet they took the time (time they could be home with their families, engaging in hobbies, watching television, spending time with friends) to grab a quick dinner and drive to the college where they would spend three hours sitting in an uncomfortable desk chair so that they could better themselves. They weren't doing it because their parents said they had to and I doubt any of them were borrowing thousands of dollars for the privilege. (And what was the professor saying about himself since he had to teach at an "substandard" institution?)

As I hear about young people borrowing thousands of dollars in order to live up to our society's expectations, it makes me sad - and angry. While I value education, I feel that young people are being duped into believing they must borrow money and go to college, because anything else makes them less valuable as human beings.

While it would have been nice to have gotten my college education done in four years, as a young adult I knew I couldn't afford it. And fortunately for me the idea of borrowing money to go to school never occurred to me. I just knew if I was to realize my dream of getting a college degree that it would be a long road and that I would have to make personal sacrifices to do so. 

It seems that it is now the norm for high school students to be taken by the hand and led through the maze of financial "assistance" which typically boils down to them taking out loans that will crush them for many years after they graduate. Questions about how much debt they will ultimately incur or whether they will realistically be able to pay it off rarely come up. They're just told they need to go to college to get a good job and this is the way those who are not wealthy (or aren't eligible for a full scholarship) must do it. Even those who get full scholarships often end up in debt because they still need money on which to live for those four (or more) years.

Again, I'm not saying I don't value education - I do. If I didn't, I wouldn't have spent 22 years of my life seeking it. What I am saying is that we need to stop making part-time college students seem as if they and their experience is substandard. And maybe we need to actually encourage students to get their degrees on a part-time basis and eschew the whole student loan experience. In fact, I've come to believe that getting a college degree the way I did can actually make one value the degree and the experience more than someone who simply signs on the dotted line and heads off for full time college experience. It's certainly a whole lot easier on your pocketbook.


April Michelle said...

I was one of the students duped into taking out thousands of dollars of debt to get a college education. Thankfully I have been lucky to be able to pay off most of my debt in a short amount of time. I have been out of college for four years I have about $5,500 left of some $30,000 plus interest. It hasn't been easy and I have become a good budgeter through the process, especially with staying home with my kiddo. We have been super careful to lower my college debt and not take on too much extra debt. I have started saving for my kiddo's college so he has something to start out with. I also hope to prevent the family strife I experienced when my family gave me a hard time for not getting a full scholarship and for taking time off from college. I'm fortunate to have reduced my college debt so much. Others have not been so fortunate and even with careful budgeting can barely pay off their debts.

Aimee said...

So true about community colleges' stigma. Nowadays here in Oregon a high schooler can actually take CC courses and be way ahead by the time they graduate, something that wasn't available for me, so by my senior year I was getting out of school at noon and going to work downtown, working full time! I'd much rather have been able to get college credit! I did both "pay as you go" and student loans - the first 3.5 years was pay-as-you go, working full time in retail and going to PSU mostly full time, but of course a year's tuition was about $2500. I dropped out to move to Colorado where the credits were semester instead of quarter, and so if I'd have enrolled at the school there, I'd have lost about a year's worth of education - how messed up is that? So I'd dropped out in '94 and didn't return to school until 2003, when I decided to go to art school, a whopping $30K for 8 months' tuition/books/supplies, paid for by student loans (unsubsidized private loans, as on my 36K salary the good folks at FAFSA said I could afford at least $20K of that on my own, HA! so I was also paying 9% interest instead of 1-2%). Being almost 30, I knew I couldn't sustain 2 years of this debt and someday buy a house, so when online courses were available for a program that allowed me to not only finish in a year, but get my degree in my professional field (HR), I took another 10K out in loans to, in my words, "just finally finish this up!" But I left at 31 with 40K in debt and a then-salary in the high 30's, and after deferring for 2 years and paying interest-only, I had $400/mo payments to get it done in 20 years. 20!!!! I feel incredibly blessed that my career trajectory changed dramatically when I started my own business and used every contract to plop onto that loan, and paid it off almost 2 years ago, but I know the feeling of being stuck with it for life.

What's sad is I really loved taking classes. I still do. And the community college near me where I've occasionally taken classes, has often disappointed me as an adult with high expectations for intellectual conversations that I got in my university education. It's only seemed that about 15% really care about the subject matter in many lower level courses - most the older students, ha! - and the rest just are doing the bare minimum to "fulfill their requirements". Let's get those folks into trade schools instead!

As a graduate though, I can say my degree has not helped me at all in my career. I just enjoyed the education, the discussion, the writing of papers (shocking that I loved writing papers haha). One used to get way more on the job training and apprenticeships were so much more readily available in decades past, and as a recruiter, it breaks my heart when employers I work with won't invest in training and few will hire junior level folks (even midlevel is hard - everyone wants to hire "rockstars" (eye roll).

And I could go on...

Cherie said...

April - I'm so sorry to hear how much you ended up owing - but I'm impressed by how you've tackled it and paid most of it off. Not many people can say that.

Cherie said...

Aimee, it's so sad how the lenders prey on students. I've talked to people who would like to go to college and just need a little help. They don't want to or can't go full time nor can they afford to take out all the loans. But if you're a part time student, you don't qualify for any type of financial assistance. And I've heard that since there's so much money out there for schools, they've started preying on trade/tech school students. Ugh. And it's not like the professors are benefiting from it. Just the opposite now with adjunct and non-tenured positions. Glad you were able to get out from under that burden.