Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Value of College (Part II)

About a month back, I wrote about the value of a college education -- specifically what I valued most from mine, and why ‘elite’ educations were overrated.  Check it out here .
Today, I’m emerging from the beginning-of-grad-school haze to share the perspective of a friend of mine -- she was a STEM major, also at Carnegie Mellon, and she has some financial regrets about her choice of college.  In her words:

“Originally I didn't get the best aid, and was heartbroken when my parents said they were not sure they could send me to Carnegie Mellon. My dad had a conference trip in Pittsburgh and took me along so I could "check out the school". Not knowing what to do exactly, I went to the admissions office, the work-study office, the career center, and finally the financial aid office, from where I was led to talk to someone with enough power to hear me plead for more financial aid, and grant me it [Dina’s note: BAMF move]. On one hand, I'm glad, and thankful, of course. But since I obviously worked so hard to get in, my parents would have had a hard time saying no, even (or especially?) on financial grounds. Besides, it was "me" (in principle) that was taking on the loans (but really it was me, my parents, my husband, my future children, probably my siblings, that are affected).

My original objective was to get into a graduate school program for a PhD. However, having a bad experience in a lab that I worked in, I ultimately decided that 6 years of graduate school (for expected little paycheck) is just not for me, and that I was interested in pursuing a nursing degree. By that time, I felt like it was "too late" to bail out and I completed my degree as a sort of lazy non-decision. (Not that it was easy - sometimes I think the psychological stress from CMU is just as bad as the debt and lack of financial return).  After graduation, it took me 7 months to get a hospital job, because the primary thing they look for is experience. First, I applied to jobs that required a science bachelor's degree, such as in the labs, but as the rejections kept coming, I started applying to all sorts of jobs that I thought might get me a little exposure to the world of nursing. The job I finally found was as a front desk receptionist job that only required a HS diploma, and I’m looking again for a job now that my husband and I have moved to be closer to family. [Dina’s update: aand, in the month since we talked, she found one!]

Obviously every path is different, and mine took a series of specific turns that aren't as typical for recent CMU grads. However, I think that only a few people really know at 18 years old which direction they want to take in life, and more importantly, don't change their minds partway through. In my case, nurses are in such high demand that I really didn't need to take on such debt in order to be assured of a financially stable and happy life. I do believe that my CMU education makes it easier for me to get into the educational programs that I do apply for, but this is a relatively little return.  The sense of despair when I look at my bank account is disabling; the days that I pay my student loan bill I can barely think about anything else, and worse yet, it's hard to peel my eyes away from the low account balance and get motivated enough to continue applying. This is definitely not at all what I envisioned when I bullied my way into coming to CMU.

It is not fun not having money, even if it doesn't buy happiness. (That sums up my relationship with money.)”

My friend brings up a great point: we make big decisions about college, debt, and our intended careers as teenagers.  What do we really know at that point?  Do we really understand the consequences?  Seems like many (including moi) thought not going to a ‘good’ university would just absolutely be the end of the world, like totally humiliating.  So I’ll just posit that at 18, we could use some help in making such a big decision --  where to go to college, and really, whether to go at all.

On a recent trip to the Cape, I spent some time with a great group of teenagers.  And my predominant reaction was “I am soooo glad to not be a teenager anymore”.  I am so over spending time worrying about what others think, making decisions based on what other people had done, while being entirely clueless about what the heck I even wanted.  It’s remarkable how much better life is when you’ve figured out what you want (at least some of it).

Which brings me back to teenagers and college: in my high school, getting into college was a competition.  Acceptance at a highly-ranked university provided validation that your work amounted to something.  At the least, this was my unhealthy perspective.  Add to the mix adults who heap praise for getting into ‘good’ schools, parents who value brand names and hate to deny their child what is considered a ticket to a good life, and you have students who may need to take on lots of debt for their education.  

Everybody’s situation is different, but I have just two words to share: dog walker.  Seriously.  There are numerous paths that can be decently lucrative, and don’t require a college education (or don’t require an expensive college education).  I sure am glad that I went to college.  Nobody would want me to do a PhD without it.  But I want to make sure that I never lose perspective -- you can find work (and earn money) from non-traditional jobs.  It feels great to have so many options in life, to know that if one thing doesn’t work out, I can pursue another avenue and make it work --

What do you think is the value of college?  As college gets more expensive, do you think more people will consider alternatives and think longer and harder about taking on loans?  Would you make a different decision about college if you could go back in time to senior year of high school?

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