Alright. Before I start on this, let me check my employment privilege. I went to a small, liberal arts, women’s college in Georgia. I went for four years, got out with about $26K of debt (about average). Six months later, during two of which I was interning in Chicago, I landed my first job. I’m not gonna lie; it’s kinda my dream job, too. I just had to cart my ass up to Philadelphia, and, two years later, here I am. I don’t make bank, but I make ends meet without having to sweat every month.
I’m doing pretty okay. And I know a lot of people my age aren’t right now.
But even so, I have a hard time understanding the seemingly widespread bitterness that many people my age seem to have about their years spent in college. It is what a lot of the Occupy movement was founded on. I feel like not a day goes by that I don’t hear someone talking about “wasting” time and money in school or “not using” their education—even those with jobs. I know that stories like these pervade the news, but I want to provide a counter-narrative and some advice for my young friends who are currently considering whether or not to do the whole “Bachelor’s” thing.
So here are some things this old lady learned about college that might help the next generation out.
College is an investment (like, actually)
“College is an investment.” This, you’ve heard before, but no one really takes the time to explain what that means. An investment is something that you put money into with the hope or reasonable expectation that when that investment matures, you’ll get more out of it than you put in. In every investment, there is risk you will have wasted your money. College, like anything else, increases your chances of being paid more, of having a job. But it doesn’t guarantee it. It angers and upsets me when I hear people say that college guarantees you a job or a better life. It’s not true any more than investing in the stock market is guaranteed to make you rich.
It’s a very secure investment
Even though, during the recession, the amount recent graduates are earning declined by 5%, those with college degrees were still better off in the employment market than those who only had high school diplomas, whose wages have declined more than twice that. That’s significantly better, and that earnings difference adds up over the course of a lifetime. Additionally, the proportion of those graduating college with a bachelor’s still get employment at about the same rates as before the recession, where the employment rate for high school graduates and those with associate degrees has dropped about 8-10%. So, overall, you still get a pretty great return on college.
Study what you love
If I see one more “article” about “high income” or “high employability” college majors, I will slap a bitch. The idea that you should pick your major based on the likelihood that you’ll make 2% more money is the worst advice ever. One of my majors was philosophy, the original “What are you going to do with that?” degree. I wasn’t majoring in philosophy because of the amount of dough I expected to make (which was, truth be told, not very much). I was studying it because I enjoyed it. If you’re going to spend four years focused on something, it better damn well be something that you like. Even if majoring in a “high income” major somehow guaranteed you a larger salary, you’ll likely just end up changing careers later in life when you realize you hate waking up in the morning. Not fun.
Get a frickin’ job that matters
If you’re worried about getting a job after graduation, cultivate some other skills while you’re there—a day job is a great way to do this. Many students in the United States receive a work study grant, where they can work up to 10 hours per week and get some money. Most of my friends took jobs where they could sit and do homework during their shifts. Don’t do that. Do work that matters, that you don’t hate, and one where you can learn. I chose to work in my school’s IT department. I took my job seriously, did it well, and learned a hell of a lot about computers. Most importantly, I held down that job for four years (including two summers), which looked amazing on my resume. I also had several of my coworkers willing and ready to give me glowing recommendations when I graduated—and be damn sure that made a difference.
If it’s not worth it, ditch it
I loved college, and I think that most of the people who are actively encouraging people to not go to college are likely misguided, but if you sit in a desk and every minute feels like a fraction of a second away from gouging out your own eyeballs, you shouldn’t be there. Now, I’m not talking “I’d rather be home playing World of Warcraft”-type unhappiness. But if we’re talking, “I’d rather be spending my time fixing/building something” or, “I want to get home so I can tinker with my project some more,” and college is not helping you get where you want to go, then college is wasting your time. Get out and go do what you love.
At the end of the day, college is a place to learn. I think that—ahem—kids these days (including many kids my age) suffer from hubris; they think that they have nothing to learn and can strike out on their own when they turn 18 and become the next Mark Zuckerberg. Hear me now: Folks like that are the exception, not the rule, and even then, it’s risky. It was risky for them, and many like them have failed. You just don’t hear about them.
College, ultimately, is what you make of it. For many people, it is a worthwhile investment of time, money, and energy—not just in the money you get back, but the experiences you gain, the people you meet, and the things you learn that make you a better person. I didn’t regret going to college, and I think those who say they do are kidding themselves.