2016 marks five years from my college graduation. I’ve been adulting, with various degrees of success, for five whole years now. I’ve held a plethora of jobs over that time, from waitress to Development Director. I’ve also experienced periods of underemployment. I’ve been through it all while carrying a large load of student debt.
See, college cost me a lot of money. Roughly $250,000 to be exact. I had some scholarships, some money from my grandparents and I worked the entire four years (I had three jobs in my senior year!), but that price tag was high enough that I walked away with over $25,000 in debt in the end. Carrying five figures of debt right into the Great Recession was a tough blow to be dealt.
That debt followed me around for years, and would have followed me for much longer if I hadn’t gotten very serious about paying it all off last year. (I managed to kick it to the curb in June of 2015, despite never having earned more than $32,000 in the last five years.) As we all know, student loan debt is becoming more and more common, and the numbers loom bigger every year. This year the average graduate will have $37,172 in student loans.
I’ve worked in jobs that have drawn upon my college education, and I’ve worked jobs where basically nothing I learned in college was relevant. Looking back over the past five years, I’ve asked myself on more than one occasion if college was worth it’s hefty price tag. Was I really using what I learned in college? Was it necessary for all the adulting I was doing?
Why College Isn’t Worth It
We live in a world that changes almost daily. It’s cliche, but technology has so drastically changed our everyday lives, and it’s impact can be felt hugely in the professional world. Information is everywhere, and the information that is most valuable today is no longer found tucked away in ivory towers.
Hop on the internet and you can learn to code. Learn to code and you can develop an app. Develop an app and you can sell it. Boom. You’ve created not only a job, but for people like SnapChat Founders, you’ve created a company worth $16 billion dollars. And while you were at it you changed the way people communicate with each other.
Of course, not everyone becomes Silicon Valley’s next wunderkind. Even if we backtrack a bit though, to just learning to code off the internet- from there you can get a job at a computer company, with the local government, or with a nonprofit. You can learn valuable and flexible skills from sitting in front of your computer, not in a college classroom. All for a much lower price tag.
I didn’t have those skills upon graduating from college. Sure, I’d read Joan Didion and I could write a ten page paper in three hours or less! But the skill set that liberal arts colleges offer are not the skill sets that are in the top demand in today’s workforce. Having that realization while $25,000 worth of debt sat on my shoulders was a rude awakening.
A big part of the Great Recession was the wage stagnation. Not only were there fewer jobs, the ones that did exist paid less than they did before. That fact has remained the same, even as we’ve come out of the Recession.
In my experience, I have yet to crack even $35,000 in annual pay. Remember all those jobs I’ve had? All of them were for super low pay, or were part time. This is a new fact of life for millions of people, and it makes people think twice about the high prices of college. Why should I pay a quarter of a million dollars for my degree when I’ll only make $30,000 a year with it?
The price of college is outrageous. College will price itself out of usefulness if this model doesn’t change. Even those graduating with degrees in STEM have student loan burdens to bear. The name brand of their college matters as well, with MONEY reporting that salary for STEM graduates varies widely based on alma mater. No one is immune to the student loan beast.
Why College Is Worth It
While it is definitely possible to educate yourself online and see fantastic professional results, the internet does have its limits.
College shaped how I think. It helped me become more a more critical thinker, a better analyzer and it opened up my world view in a huge way. It absolutely changed me to my core. I can’t say enough how much college showed me. I was just a girl from small town New England when I started college. I had no idea of the scope of the world or all the different people, ideologies and happenings in it. College showed that to me, and gave me tools to continue to challenge myself and my thinking after I graduated.
College is also a place to form relationships that will last for years. I went to college in Connecticut and wound up in Texas in a house full of graduates from my school.
Had I not gone to college at all, I would never have met these people. I started writing a book with one of them. I helped another with a business they started. College brought us together. Whether for friends or networking, the relationships college puts in place for the rest of your life can matter hugely. The argument could go that you can’t put a price on that.
For me, the question is moot. I’ve already gone to college and I can’t change that fact. The question is still in play for millions of young Americans out there though. Is college worth it? The answer isn’t one size fits all. Consider what you want for your future and consider what college will give you. Make your choices off of that information, not what you find in a glossy brochure.