By Caitlin Kelly
Tis the season of graduations and commencements.
For thousands, it’s a hard-earned moment of excitement and trepidation.
For many Americans, though, it also means facing decades of debt.
And educational debt is a form of fiscal servitude from which it’s very difficult to escape via declaring bankruptcy.
In the United States — where all post-secondary education is called “college”, while in Britain, Canada and elsewhere it’s “university” — it’s anathema to suggest the very possibility of not attending college.
By this I mean a four-year degree — (Americans don’t confer three-year bachelor’s degrees) — from a private or public institution whose annual costs can be up to $60,000 a year.
This in an era when many blue-collar/manual labor jobs are begging for employees and, once you’ve finished your apprenticeship, (and usually gained union membership, which protects your wage-earning power), can make up to $100,000 a year — far more than many jobs that require multiple degrees.
In 2014 and 2015, I was an adjunct writing professor at Pratt Institute, a private college in Brooklyn best known for the arts.
I taught freshman students in their four-year-writing program, amused and appalled by their parents’ willingness to cough up more per year — $60,000 — than 99.9% of the students will ever earn in a year of actually selling their words to anyone outside of Hollywood.
My husband attended New Mexico State University at no cost because his father was a Baptist minister in Santa Fe and he was given scholarships. I attended the University of Toronto (Canada’s best) and paid full freight — a fat $660 (yes) per year, also graduating debt-free.
What did I learn at university that has stayed with me?
—– Intellectual confidence
Having to argue my ideas in front of smart fellow students has helped me in a business where I have to do it every day.
— Social confidence
I led a student event in my junior year and that reminded me I do have leadership skills.
— Professional confidence
I wrote so much for the college weekly newspaper in freshman year I was writing for national media before I turned 20, still an undergrad.
— Language skills
I studied French for three years (fluent, thanks to a year spent in Paris) and four years of Spanish, both of which I’ve reported in.
— Dislike of authority
I got virtually no support from my professors or administrators beyond a (much appreciated) shout-out in a freshman English lit class. A year later, when I dared to ask for college credit for being nationally published, the chair of the English department sneered in reply without a word of congratulations or praise.
I’ve never given my alma mater a penny since.
Almost none of these was my course material — not Conrad or Chaucer or Locke or Plato.
The best thing university did for me was to force me to work hard for demanding professors who basically didn’t care if I succeeded or not, competing with smart and determined people around me.
Sounds like the “real world” to me!
Unless you’ve mastered specific technical skills — engineering, architecture, dentistry, law, medicine, business, computer science — I often wonder if college/university is truly the best preparation and the wisest investment of time and money.