The Lie of College: An Ode to Student Loans

If I had it to do over again, I don't know if I'd go to college.

Crazy, right?

I enjoyed college. I really did. And I'm talking about the actual classes themselves (my free time in college was spent actually doing my homework or watching The X-Files re-runs in my dorm while eating a Lean Cuisine; no parties, sororities, or binge drinking for me). I loved, for the most part, sitting through lectures on interesting new material. Literary symmetry, Greek mythology, artistic symbolism, the mysteries of ancient Crete, forensic anthropology. It was all fascinating. And this new way of learning, of critical thinking, opened my mind in ways that grade school, both homeschool and public school, had not. I'm forever thankful for that.

However. I'm just not sure it was worth having over $21,000 in debt almost ten years later. Especially when the degree it paid for, a bachelor's in English, has yet to bring a job.

I graduated from high school in 2006, an entire year ahead of schedule. All of my friends were a year or two older than me, so I guess I felt the need to catch up. After all, they would be going off to college and leaving me soon. Everyone else was applying for scholarships, applying to private universities in and out of state, and I was just trying to fit in.

But at that age, having just turned seventeen, I had no clue what I wanted to do. At least when it came to a university major. I was interested in writing stories and making music, and I was seriously dreaming of opening a cafe/coffeehouse. I couldn't really connect any of those things to a college major. But everyone else was going, so I thought I had to, too. Besides, wasn't that the only way to get a job?

My two closest friends at the time were interested in psychology. So. When I first enrolled at Gadsden State Community College, that was the major I declared.

I know.

It took about two weeks into my first psychology course to figure out I didn't want to do that. So I evaluated my personal hopes and dreams and decided to make my coffeehouse/cafe a reality. I switched to business management, despite my parents' advice. My dad told me a hundred times that opening my own business would mean certain financial failure. So I was nervous. Perhaps that's why I changed majors again two semesters in, when accounting and statistics were boring the mess out of me.

Unsure of what to do at that point, I literally flipped through the Gadsden State Course Catalog, looking at every single major fifty times, sometimes closing my eyes and pointing. In all honesty, that method is probably how I ended up a paralegal major. Another venture which lasted approximately one-quarter of a semester.

With all my shifting around, I ended up with enough credit hours to graduate in a couple of years. My classes were all over the place, in every field, which mean I qualified for an associates in General Studies.

Yep. An A.S. in General Studies. My ticket to a dream career.

Obviously, I couldn't stop with that useless piece of paper. It was now time to transfer to a four-year university. I no longer had time to play around, jumping majors. I had to decide what I really, seriously wanted to do. And the only thing, the only constant in my life that I could identify, was writing. I wanted to write fiction. Screenwriting particularly interested me; it amazed me that someone, somewhere, was actually getting paid to write Supernatural. And here I was, in Alabama, writing spec-script-quality fanfics for free. It seemed the obvious route to follow.

So I researched creative writing programs. The closest one was in Mobile, Alabama, at the University of South Alabama. This school was over four hours away from my parents and all of the small-town drama I was dealing with at the time, so it seemed like the perfect escape. But my family couldn't afford tuition, room, and board at a four-year university.

Enter Sallie Mae.....

I'd never heard much about student loans; I only knew that they sent my friends to private universities I wished I could attend. And since you had to fill out a FAFSA and go to the university financial aid office to get one, I thought they were simply that- financial aid. Something like a scholarship or a grant. I really did not understand that I would have to pay them back, plus interest, for the rest of my life. 

All I knew was that I signed some papers, and I got to go to school.

What happened next is a long, bleak story that I'll summarize. I ended up staying at South Alabama for one year. They got a football team and made cuts to their writing department, slashing staff and courses. I didn't graduate, I came home, I became depressed, I gained tons of weight, and I started getting bills for student loans. I needed a job to pay for these loans, so I went to nursing school at my parents urging. Good ol' Gadsden State Community College had a one-year LPN program, and my parents said they would pay for that because it was affordable and practical. A guaranteed job.

I found a job as an LPN. I started paying Sallie Mae.

The end.

Until 2014, when I got completely fed up with paying huge chunks to Sallie Mae for a degree I didn't even get to finish. Determined to get my money's worth, I found an online English program and completed my degree via the Internet while working as a nurse. I finally earned my bachelor's in English in 2015.

Aaaaand guess what? I'm still working as an LPN because I can't find work using said degree. Oh, and I'm still paying Sallie Mae, though they are now Navient, and I owe basically just as much as I did when I started.

How does that even make sense?

That's how student loans work. Few millennials in my situation log into their Navient accounts and read the details of their loans, but when they do...they're in for a shock.

Please observe the following annotated screenshot from my largest student loan:

You feel like you're doing okay. You're paying your minimum payments regularly, on time, so you should be free from Navient's choke-hold soon. Right?

Wrong. When you look at the details, if you keep making only minimum payments, you'll be paying forever.

That screenshot is only one of my loans. I have seven. My husband has just as many. It's an overwhelming, suffocating feeling. And in comparison to many people, our loans are a small amount. Many of my friends from high school funded four years of private universities with student loans, and though I was jealous at the time, I sure do feel sorry for them now.

The question I keep asking myself is this: was college worth it?

I don't think so. 

I mean, college was an amazing experience. I grew tremendously from it. But in my particular case, I didn't need a degree to write. I just needed to write. Though college taught me a lot about what is considered good literature, I spent most of my time following my professors' instructions to over-analyze antiquated writings through sometimes questionable lenses. I mean, I actually had to write a ten page essay arguing that Emily Dickinson may have been transgender, solely based on "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass."

Come. On.

Nowadays, looking back on my college career, I feel that I could have obtained the same education I gained in school for free if I had only read more books. Listened to informative podcasts. Watched documentaries. Traveled more. Met new people. Tried new things.

If you've been following the blog lately, you know that I currently work nights and every other weekend as a nurse and days as a restaurant server. Many days, I make over $15/hr waiting tables. That's what I make as a nurse. $15/hr was what I made as dementia unit charge nurse at that horribly stressful nursing home in Missouri. This whole time, I could have been making the same money taking food orders and refilling drinks.

Too often, I think, what if I had just waited tables when I was 17? What if I had skipped out on college, saved all that tip money, and invested it into my own cafe/coffeehouse? 

You see, I still have that same dream. Could I be living that life now if I hadn't chosen to follow the crowd and go to college?

What if I had focused more on writing than on following my friends? Might I have published a book by now? What if I had moved to Nashville, waited tables there, and pursued a music career? Would I have ended up working as a nurse to pay student loans?

I don't know. It doesn't matter now. What matters is that, in a week or two, there's a good chance someone you know will be graduating high school. They're about to be in the same spot I was in eleven years ago. Staring ahead at an unknown future, feeling the pressure from everyone to go to school for this, for that. They'll be filling out their FAFSAs and getting green lights from Navient. They'll be trying to make huge, life-altering decisions quickly, and it'll be pretty terrifying, whether they admit it or not.

Before any of us go doling out advice to these young people, let's consider all the options. Let's at least acknowledge that college isn't the only one.

Plenty of jobs, of course, require specific degrees and certifications, thus making college necessary, but I bought into the lie that simply having some college degree guaranteed a job. Sadly, the fact that everyone is going to college now makes a bachelor's degree more like a high school diploma. It's not that impressive. It's not unique. In most fields, it seems hiring managers are looking for experience, not mere possession of a degree.

Whether it stems from parents and teachers or movies and TV shows, too much emphasis is placed on college. It's pushed on eighteen-year-olds who are just as lost and confused and overwhelmed by it as I was, and truthfully, this shouldn't be. Before they sign their futures away to Navient, high school grads should have a little time to figure life out. Figure themselves out.

They need some time to read The Total Money Makeover.

Because college is great, but it isn't for everyone.

I've gone back and forth about writing this post for a while. I feared it might sound like nothing more than an angry rant from someone tired of paying Navient. However, the more I've ruminated on the topic, the clearer my stance has become. What are your thoughts on this apparently controversial subject? I'm interested to read your comments below! 


Lacey said...

I work at a community college for the Vocational Ed department and agree with your stance completely. Our students get degrees/industry certificates that hold weight to our local industry partners, they learn skills that will enable them to actually be successful in a vocation, and it is all extremely affordable because it's a community college. It's very rare that a student at a community college takes out a loan.

I recently read a book called "Redefining the Goal" by Kevin Fleming - if you are inclined to learn more about this topic you should totally check it out. For a summation of what the book is about, check out this YouTube video, also done by Kevin Fleming: (I LOVE THIS VIDEO!!)

(BTW - Kevin Fleming is like a rock star in the community college world, lol. We love him!)

But yes, I agree, we all too quickly recommend university to students and fail to encourage them to develop their skills in areas they are naturally talented in and interested in. I think this needs to start in middle school - career exploration is seriously lacking in our public schools and it's resulting in countless young adults who have no clear focus about what they should do or what they CAN do.

I try to encourage people to just stop and think before making any big life decisions like this. Think about your options and don't just go with what everyone else is doing. I managed to get my BS in Business Management without any loans by choosing an online university that I could afford based on my income. It was really difficult and I lived on very little money during that time because so much of my paycheck went to paying my tuition, but I made it happen. HOWEVER - I have reflected lately on my degree choice and realize it was a poor one. I have very little natural management qualities in my personality - I have zero interest in making business decisions or running my own gig. I'm way more happy being the support system or working more on the creative side of things. So, even while I was able to get that degree without any debt, I still could have made wiser choices.

I totally rambled here... if you can't tell, I'm pretty interested in this subject too, lol. Glad to read your post about it!

Anna Marie Schaefer said...

I completely agree with everything you said. Even though my college experience *is* leading to a career, there are still lots of downsides to those loans. The way your loans are structured is criminal, in my opinion. College is truly not for everyone. We don't discuss the other options enough, let alone to we encourage kids to explore them, or admire people for doing them.

The other major problem with pushing college on everyone is the necessity to make college "easier" so that more people can pass and get degrees (because, of course, if people fail and drop out they aren't paying tuition anymore). And then the degree is worth so little because almost anybody can get some kind of degree at some school. So they charge an exorbitant price to people who can't afford it for a degree that may not improve the value of the paper it was printed on. Ugh.... I could rant for hours.

Jessica A. Walsh said...

9%!!!!!!!???????? You should refinance that!

Fred Castillo said...

It really is one of the biggest lies that we were/are told as children and it's even worse because it's not just one lie, it's at least two. "You have to go to college at any cost or you will fail at life" combined with "all majors are equally good and you'll always be able to get a job even if your degree is in basketweaving".

So you get people taking out $100k loans to get basketweaving degrees, and they're left there holding the bag like "uhh, did I just get scammed?"

Truly one of the biggest scams of the 20th century and it's crazy because it wasn't just a single person or entity that did it; it was perpetuated by every school, your parents, etc... just crazy.

Fred |