Tuesday, June 12, 2012

To College or Not To College ... That is No Longer the Right Question

We've been talking about college on our homeschool groups. I know some people might find it odd, but homeschoolers often go to college, and, at least from my experience with the colleges my oldest daughter applied to, many colleges like having homeschoolers - at least they don't really seem to care whether the incoming students were homeschooled or traditionally schooled as long as they have the right documents.

I got into trouble a few years ago on a radical unschooling group when I came out wholly in favor of college. The question was "do you want your children to go to college?", and I answered - at that time - yes, I wanted them to. I endured an immediate and extremely harsh backlash from people who told me it was none of my business to "want" anything for my children except their enduring happiness, and if they were happy living in a cardboard box and eating cockroaches, it was my job to be supportive of that choice (assuming it's a choice and not an unhappy result of poorly executed choices).

The irony is that I wasn't pushing any particular educational ideology on my children. We're unschoolers, which means our basic philosophy is that living is learning and requires no formal education. It was just talk among parents, and I thought it was okay to voice my (perhaps, misguided) opinion. While, certainly, my beliefs often seep into my actions - as do everyone's - I work very hard to allow my children the freedom to explore their own interests and minds.

That was a lot of years ago, though. Since then, a lot has happened, not just in my own little bubble existence, where everyone is a pony and they all eat rainbows and poop butterflies, but also the world at large.

Unemployment, even (maybe especially) for those with college degrees is still pretty high, and those degreed people are, invariably, not working in their chosen fields, and they also aren't making the kind of money they were promised if they finished their college degrees, which would allow them to pay off student loans. The result is that we have a lot of highly educated people who are heavily in debt and can't find a job.

It's worse than just high unemployment, though. The problems facing our youth are going to go much deeper than just not being able to find jobs. As the economy continues to buckle, globally, even those with traditional kinds of jobs will find it more difficult to sustain the standard of living most of us have come to enjoy.

The price of gasoline is bouncing between $3/gal and $4/gal here in the US, and it will continue its trending upward in price with big bounces up and little bounces down, until it reaches a point where most people just don't even bother trying to afford it anymore and really start looking for other options.

The cost of food has continued to explode. I saw some figures the other day that seemed to indicate that feeding a family of four is double what it cost a decade ago.

The reality for many folks is that making more money is just allowing them to keep their heads above water, but it's not improving their overall lives.

The reality is that those with college degrees aren't, necessarily, in a better position than those without. In fact, the jobs that I, now, do (blogger, author, transcriptionist) don't require a college degree, and I could have done any of those jobs without my educational credentials.

That's not to say that my college degree has been worthless. Because I was a college grad when I enlisted into the US Army, I was immediately promoted to E-4, Specialist, which means I was paid, from the beginning, an average of $500 more per month than a brand new recruit, which equals $2000 more pay in the first four months of service.

Because my degree is in education, I was able to apply for and receive a provisional certification, which allows me to perform portfolio reviews for area homeschoolers, but, more importantly, for my own children, which has saved us between $45 and $150 per year on the cost of having someone do it for us.

Having my degree might, also, have gotten my foot in a few doors that would have, otherwise, been closed to me, but I don't know that for certain.

The question is, are those few things worth the kind of college debt most kids are getting into these days? Is it worth $50,000 and half a lifetime of debt-servitude to be able to wear that badge that declares I'm educated?

When the discussion came up recently, and I was asked a similar question do I want my children to go to college, I answered differently, this time, because it's no longer a black and white, this way or that way, question. It's no longer the same argument.

Back then my response was based on the belief (and it was supported by a great deal of evidence) that, on average, a person with a college degree makes more money than a person without. The core of my argument, at that time, had to do with the very middle-class supposition that the ability to earn money dictated one's future happiness.

My core belief has changed, and I no longer believe it's about the money. I've come to realize that having a job to make money does not guarantee comfort, safety, or happiness. Those things only come with a sense of knowing that one is capable of caring for one's self. Those things come with being self-sufficient and independent from the violent fluctuations in our economic system. Dependence on needing to earn money is the trap I hope to help my children avoid.

My answer to the college question, these days, is that if they want to go to college, then I will support that decision IF they can do so without accruing any debt. I won't help them into an indebted future just so that they can hold that piece of paper, but be saddled like a beast of burden with a debt they can't easily repay.

The problem with asking the question regarding college, though, is that, as a society, it seems like there's only one answer. Even with the economy buckling like it has been and kids with college degrees protesting around the country because they can't find jobs that will support them and pay off their student loans, we still seem to be having the same dialogue about our children's futures, as evidenced by the question: do you want your children to go to college? To me, it's the wrong question.

The question is, what are our children's passions, and how can we help them cultivate those passions in building their futures?

The question isn't should they go to college, but rather, what do they wish to do/explore/know/learn, and is college necessary in the pursuit of those interests?

For those who don't know what they want to do, college is a good place to explore and discover, but with the cost of a higher education, might there be other, cheaper, options that would provide the same opportunities?

When I was twelve years old, I knew two things about my future: I knew I was going to go to college, because that's what we did, and I knew I wanted to be a writer.

I believed that college was not just paramount to a successful future, but a guaranteed ticket to the land of Dreams-Come-True.

But, really, I just wanted to write, and throughout junior high and high school, write is what I did - poetry, short stories, journal entries - I filled notebooks with the stuff that teens are made of.

And, then, I went to college, and while I continued to write, mostly academically, any dreams of actually writing for a living were, pretty much, squelched with the need to make money.

I wonder, occasionally, what if, instead of going to college, I had been given the opportunity to hone my craft? What if, instead of paying for a four year degree in English, I had been able to take a few writing classes at the Adult Ed center or signed up for some writing workshops or had a subscription to Writer's Digest or entered writing contests? What if, instead of going to college, I had just been allowed to write? Might I have not had to wait twenty years to realize my dream of carrying the title "Author"?

I'll never know the answer to my "what if", but what I do know is that we need to change the question for our children, and it needs to not be about how they're going to earn money, but about how they wish to live. We need to have the dialogue centered around what they want to do, and not what they want to do to earn money ... because the most fulfilled people in the world have found a way to do both.

The rest of us are still muddling through looking for answers.


How to Help Your Children Earn a College Degree and Keep Them Out of Debt

As I said, though, if my children do choose to go to college, they will do so with my blessing *only* if they can find a way to do it without getting into debt, but I do have some ideas for ways my children can earn a college degree - if that's what they wish to do - without accruing educational loans.

The Ultimate Plan would include my helping my child purchase a fixer-upper that, once it was remodeled, would have a lot of equity, and my child could, then, borrow on the equity of the house to finance her college.

If this were 2002, when the housing bubble was just beginning to expand, and it was easier to get housing loans, this might be a workable idea, but in today's climate, even people with good credit scores are finding it difficult to be approved for housing loans. As such, unless I can pay, outright, for the house (not likely), this idea probably won't happen.

So, the back-up plan is, simply, that my children live with me while they study. Deus Ex Machina and I will continue to pay their room and board, and they will find ways to earn money to pay for tuition. At most public four-year colleges, tuition is not expensive. It's being able to afford to live while studying that results in the exorbitant costs associated with a college degree. In fact, information in this article while principally about the rising costs of tuition, shows that room and board is almost double the cost of tuition.

Going to school part-time, taking some courses at community colleges, and living at home could greatly reduce the overall cost of getting an higher education and, really, make it affordable to anyone ... with parents who are willing to live with their adult children.


Blake Boles, author of Better Than College: How to Build a Successful Life Without a Four-Year Degree, does a really interesting talk entitled: What You Can Do With $20,000.

I wish I'd taken more time to think about these other options back when I still had the freedom to do something besides following the usual path.


  1. I and most of my friends have gone to college and I'd say that most of us are doing pretty well. Even if my friends have had bouts of unemployment it's much easier to get a job if you've got better papers and skills than the rest of the crowd. Though money won't bring you happiness, it can bring security and the opportunity to think about more than just surviving.

    That saying, quite a few of my friends do have student loan debts that run into the tens of thousands and I'm pretty sure they're just making the minimum payments. But loans aren't all bad - I paid off my own two years after I graduated and haven't looked back since. Without that loan I wouldn't have been able to go to school at all and wouldn't have had both the employment and life opportunities that my degree could offer.

    Any type of loan is going to be a risk in some people's hands but if you use the money wisely and pay it off quickly then surely it's a tool that can help people better their lives.

  2. This is a topic I could go on and on and on about.

    Both my husband and I have advanced degrees. My husband is a professor at a university, and it's what he always wanted to do. He needed that Ph.D. to do what he loves, so he got the degree and has never looked back. I have a Ph.D. because I love to learn, but it's not terribly useful in my day-to-day job. I will say that the advanced degree taught me something that nothing else did - to think critically. To ask questions of everything. To never take anything at its face value, not even those "peer-reviewed journal articles". THAT is an important skill to have, but I don't think one should have to get a Ph.D. to learn that. That's a failing of our educational system.

    Until recently, I worked at a university, and got to see the side of the coin where the university struggles to make ends meet, and to balance educating undergrads with cutting-edge research (they are really very different tasks). Institutions don't move or change quickly, and they are having a hard time keeping up with the very rapidly changing Real World. Some students come out with real-world skills and job experience via internships and co-ops, and others come out with... a piece of paper and no more idea of what they want to do with their lives than they did four years before when they started. That's a sad state of affairs.

    I'm also looking at this equation as a parent of two college students. It is bloody mucking EXPENSIVE to go to college, even a state school. For our kids, we told them that we'd pay a certain amount (enough to get them through a decent state school) per year for four years, but if they wanted to go somewhere that costs more, they'd have to figure out how to pay for it without going into much debt. We sat down with them and did the math with how much money they'd have to pay on a loan every month once they got out, and how old they'd be when they paid it off. Most kids at 17/18 have no idea how much $10,000 really is, because they have no context. Putting it into a perspective they can understand is really, really important.

    Do *I* want my kids to go to college? Yes, I do, because in our society today, you pretty much need that piece of paper to get many jobs. It seems to be the new high-school diploma. I don't necessarily *agree* that it should be this way, but at least where we live, that's the way it *is*. I also think that there are a lot of experiences that kids who go to college (especially those who live on campus) have that they might not otherwise. Of course, they'd probably have a whole other set of no-less-valuable experiences if they joined the Peace Corps for four years!

    I want my kids to do something they love, and be able to afford to do things they enjoy. I don't want them to have to struggle to put food on the table. Of course, that can happen to anyone in this day and age, a college degree is no guarantee. I *do* think we are selling our kids a false bill of goods if we are telling them that. What we really need to be instilling in them is a good work ethic, the ability to think for themselves, and a sense of personal responsibility. That's not something college teaches, that's something learned at home.

    Erm, speaking on going on and on about this topic... anywho, yes, my kids are going to college. No, they will not have huge debt when they are done. No, I do not think that college is The Answer To Happiness and The American Dream (whatever that is), but I do think it's a good experience and can open doors that can make lifelong differences. Is a college degree the only way? Definitely not, but it is ONE way.

  3. My husband and I are two sides of the coin. He's Mr. PhD and took 10 years to go to school. Now, 12 years later, he's finally making more than me--with my 2 year degree (3 years college total).

    I ran out of money and life just generally happened as I was facing my 4th year of school. I did what I could to pay for those three years---scholarships and working my butt off.

    Do I want my kids to go to college? Hmmm...if they want. I certainly will NOT help them pay for it. My parents, by necessity (I was the oldest of 6--they had 5 more mouths to feed when I left home!) did not pay for any of my schooling. And I was a loan-o-phobe. I backed out of a large student loan to cover my 4th year.

    Do I regret it?


    But other times not. Because chances are, I'd still be working the same soul-sucking POS job I am now, but I'd be paying off that 4th year loan and be even more depressed that I was a college graduate with a soul-sucking POS job.

    I don't think taking out massive student loans is a bad thing--if your kid is knowledgeable on how the degree they're obtaining is going to translate to the job market. I would certainly be disappointed if they took out $50K in loans to become underwater basket weavers. However, for a more viable in-demand career? Not so much. I feel it is my duty to educate them as to the value of a dollar.

    I'll hope that they learn from us as well. I'm very proud of the fact that I paid for that 3 years of school out of my own pocket even if it did just get me a lousy AA. But I'm also very proud of my husband for working it so he could get in-state tuition at the state school he attended, finding a PhD program that paid HIM a stipend to earn his PhD, and then signing up for a program that paid for his tuition for his teaching certificate. There ARE ways to get that education w/o spending an arm and a leg. And I hope they learn from our example of paying extra every month and consolidating his student loans when the interest rates were small, so that we paid off what loans he did have to take out years in advance.

  4. I kind of had the opposite way....I so wanted to get out of high school so I could just work and make money...because certainly no one was going to give it to me. I work all through high school and college just wasn't an option or so I thought. I often wonder how my life would be different....not that it has been bad...it hasn't...but manual labor gets harder and harder as the years go on. I do feel so many young people are going to college on student loans because it is easier than working...I just read an article about mid to older people going back to school....they called it "human inventory"...putting their lives on the shelf until things "get better"...what a mistake. good post..

  5. This is where I am glad we are Australian. Our university degrees are mostly free. We do accrue a debt, typically less than $10,000, which only needs to start being paid back once you are earning a reasonable salary - I think it is about $50,000. Almost all the universities are public ones.

    I love, love, loved my four years at uni. That degree taught me to think, and showed me new worlds. I have never used it to earn money, as I got pregnant about two minutes after I left uni, and have been a SAHM ever since, but it has informed my many years as a home educator, and given me tools to think about my place in the world, and how the world works.

    I am also very thankful that my son has been able to go to uni locally - it was just luck that there is a great degree here in the area he is passionate about. So we have a young adult at home, and I am really happy about that. I would have been so sad to see him go so soon. And we have just trained him up to be useful around the house too...

  6. My kids are quite far from college age, being 4 and 22 months, but this is a discussion my husband and I have been having lately. I want my kids to go to college if that is what they want to do. However, I feel like I want to encourage them to explore their interests before they actually go away to a 4 year school. When I think back on my college career, I was kind of lost, I had an idea of what I wanted to do, but I was in the minority. Most of my friends were undecided until they were juniors. And while I don't regret my college career, I wonder if I could have taken a different path and not had as many student loans :-) I'm sure I will encourage my kids to go to college, but I think that I will also encourage them to find something they are passionate about, so that when/if they do go to college they aren't wasting time and money on something that isn't relevant to what they will end up doing. All that to say, I am not sure the US college system is going to be the same when my kids are college age. So actual experience in different industries is something I am going to help them seek out and pursue.

  7. Hi Jenj,

    I was in Peace Corps and it was a great experience, but I wanted to let you know that your kids won't be selected for Peace Corp placement without a college degree. At least not until they are older with some type of valuable life skill that they can use to help them with their service.

    My son is in a private college right now. We are paying for it and it is crazy expensive. With his particular talents and skill set private college was the only way to go. Though he is taking summer classes at a community college and he managed to take enough AP classes and to test out of classes the he was able to knock off one semester's worth of classes.

    My younger daughter is more of a generalist (leaning toward science). She will, most likely, be going to an in state school. Though I wouldn't be surprised if she goes to graduate school.