Is college worth it?

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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“It’s the one with the goats in front”…Pratt Institute’s deKalb Hall, built in 1955

 

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.

 

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Victoria College, University of Toronto, my alma mater

 

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.

What do you think?

What did you study and how has it helped you succeed professionally?

14 thoughts on “Is college worth it?

  1. For me personally, college was a good choice. I was able to learn how to live independently, and was given a lot of support by the university, especially from the Disability Services Office. In addition, while there were things I could’ve gone without learning (some of my math-based classes, for example), I did take some very interesting classes that helped expand my horizons and make me a better writer and person. Even better, I wouldn’t have the job I have if I didn’t have the college education and experience, and I am grateful as heck for that, as it gives me an income while I write stories that I hope will one day pay the bills.
    And yeah, the debt is awful, and thankfully I was able to pay it off in full a few months. But still, I’m glad I went to Ohio State, and if I had to make the decision over again, I’d still go (though I wouldn’t mind getting out of a few classes).
    Still, I understand it’s not for everybody. One of my sisters did it for a year, and then decided to go in a different direction. She switched to a community college, which basically paid her in scholarship to go there, and is now a fantastic baker making deserts for a major casino in the area. And while my other three sisters are either at that community college with plans to transfer to OSU after getting all their general education credits out of the way, are already on the way to OSU, or planning to do community college for a little while after a gap year, I know they may decide their future lies elsewhere and go that way. And if they do, I’ll support them.
    in fact, I support anyone who’s looking for an alternate route than college. Yeah, it’s still the first thing that comes to mind when I think of post-high school life, but if they decide to go another path, good for them. I hope they do well on that path.
    I just wish there was more education on those paths, though. I mean, we know a lot about what colleges offer, but what about these other paths? Where are the websites and recruitment fairs and whatnot for those?
    I’m sorry, I’m rambling a bit, aren’t I? I’ve just put a lot of thought into this subject.

    1. Thanks for this….That’s exactly my point, so I appreciate you sharing so much detail.

      We live in a country that over-values “college” and really devalues the many other vocational/educational/technical paths to a good income doing work you enjoy. I think many fewer high school kids are even told about these choices.

      I struggled (!) for quite some time before enrolling in my late 30s at the The New York School of Interior Design and got a mentor who helped me think it through — he was a real NYer and finally said “You’re a snob!” He was right. I kept dismissing the work as less intellectual than my other options….

      I LOVED my classes there. Have never been so happy (except for drafting.) I didn’t go into the industry but don’t regret a penny — and that was $8,000 in the late 90s.

      1. Ah, but I didn’t even finish my certificate which would have cost quite a bit more. I do get to teach there now, which is a HUGE thrill. I was so honored when they asked me to do it. (I teach two classes, one on writing and one on marketing.)

      2. Nice!

        You know, maybe a TV show about folks going to vocational school or something along those lines might make non-college career paths more acceptable. We all know media can influence society in tremendous ways, and a TV show, especially a sitcom done well, might be a good way to get this stuff into the public consciousness a bit more.

      3. I like that idea. I’m not sure it would fly, but I agree….

        My book Malled was optioned (!) by CBS or NBC and a pilot was written but never picked up. Sob!

  2. I went to university and have two degrees. A third one is underway. I had just turned 17 a month before classes started and was really too young that year to get the most out of it. But, since I was paying my own way I had to take something that was going to pay off, and have since thought about how great it would be to just take an advanced uni course out of sheer interest. My uni experience was more positive than yours – many of my profs were sincere.
    The three-year degree has been around for a long time, just unofficially. I knew several people who squished their four years into three and were fine academically. I considered it myself. What amazes me now is how much students today will drag things out; three courses is considered to be a full load – and much to the institution’s benefit. In Canada we could do with more regulation on much of this – people don’t need a degree to cut grass at a golf course. Ontario started regulating the number of seats and institutions that can grant education degrees because teachers (some of them really poorly prepared) were being churned out by the truck load

    Not everyone needs or wants a degree (and I mean real degrees, not high school diplomas that are sometimes referred to in the US as degrees). Good, satisfying careers are very available without them.

    1. I have many things I’d like to study and learn for pleasure…

      I loved my time at interior design school. The classes were very small, the staff extremely supportive. It was a corrective experience compared to U of T — with 53,000 students. I loved some aspects of uni but the institution itself seemed coldm impersonal and impermeable and I was 19, living alone and broke. It was a stressful time in my life, so my memories are colored by that.

      The most formative moments were working for the uni newspaper (which launched my career) and participating in a week-long exchange program with UNC/Chapel Hill — we went down in a group in the fall and they came up in the winter. It showed me intimate details of American life that I have never forgotten.

  3. I must admit I always felt very lucky that, as a student, most of my course fees were paid by the government – AND I fielded a small allowance. Not enough to live off but certainly a good offset to costs. That all disappeared with the neo-liberal reforms that hit NZ from the mid-1980s, after I completed my thesis.

    On the other hand, my personal experience of the ethical vacuum at Victoria University’s history department of the early-mid 1980s was not something to inspire life direction with; and when not involved in vicious in-fighting or indulging their blatant in-crowd favouritism, the key figures there made it very clear I was not one of their Chosen Ones and therefore had no place or future in their little world. I actually switched universities to complete my thesis – I’d had a gutsful. Had I been left in debt as a result of the experience, it might have been a different story. As matters stood I at least broke even, with the help of regular holiday work which included what today might be called an internship, writing history for the New Zealand Forest Service (and became a full-time job afterwards, for a while – yah, I actually got paid a SALARY, for a year, to write books! It was a wonderful time).

    All of that was a long time ago, but as far as I can tell the academic community hasn’t changed here in NZ – my regular reward from strangers in that self-same community for making my own way, despite every barrier they put up to an academic career, has been public worth-denial attack in the media whenever I publish a book on my own merits and effort, coupled with a scrabble to invalidate any right I have to respond when I object to my good name being misrepresented. Sigh… For all that, was the fact that I pursued that academic study through multiple post-grad degrees and a thesis worth it? Probably. And I guess if I hadn’t, I’d probably always be wishing I had.

    1. WHEW!

      I loved every minute I spent in NZ in 1998 and long to return…but your professional experience there is both chilling and instructive.

      I left my hometown of Toronto in 1986 — the center of Canadian publishing — knowing I was sure to piss off at least 30% of the Powers That Be and would limit my career prospects as a result. The editor of Toronto Life (a very big deal magazine I’d written for) held the job for more than 20 years! Now it’s the daughter of one of the country’s top writers…

      Coming to NY in a recession w/o a job was brutal indeed but I re-invented in a place that, while insanely competitive, offered (and still does) lots of opportunity.

      There is a very narrow and tightly-held band of VERY good jobs here I’ll never get near. That’s the price of immigration without attending the right schools and accumulating the attendant social capital.

  4. i agree that college/university is not always the best/most natural route for everyone for myriad reasons. i know personally, that the cost was very challenging for me financially and impacted my life for years, first working as i went through and after while paying the balance loaned to me all back, but i fought my way through. i think it is the stalling point from many who would attend otherwise. i also agree that the options are out there, to be trained in the trades, begin your own business, etc. – there should be no best path, only what is best for each. like you, my lessons were more life lessons than academic training.

    1. I know that for your career change it was necessary — as it is for many professions.

      I wish there were a larger conversation about the many other ways to make a good living without cramming oneself into a costly pathway that may be a very poor fit. One friend’s son dropped out, went to barber school and is doing great. I interviewed a woman who works on Broadway, union member, and in a good/exhausting year made $150,000….

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