I worked my ass off in high school because college is — and always has been — the only option. The only way out. I said no to parties, stayed in on the weekends to do homework, and signed up for every extracurricular I could fit into the waking day. Imagine the biggest dreams your heart can hold — I believe the only way I could ever achieve them is with a college education.
I went to college for my dad, who barely finished high school and spent his life performing back-breaking labor. I piled on loans for my mom, who turned down a scholarship because she was too busy taking care of my sister, already a toddler by my mom’s eighteenth birthday. I struggled through four years of irrelevant core requirements for my grandfather, who came to America with an eighth grade education and a target on his back. I went to college to get back at every ignorant fool who called my dad a dirty spic, every relative who called my mom crazy for moving out of the trailer park, every teacher who never believed in me or my mind.
College is where I drank my first Keystone, participated in disgusting hazing rituals, and felt the silent shame from sexual assault. College is also where I studied Socrates, interned for a presidential campaign, and got my ass kicked in seminars led by world-renowned historians. I screwed around, I screwed up, I took too many things for granted. It’s true that most of what I learned in college had less to do with the books in my bag than with the experiences out of the classroom. I’d like to think that my degree has some discernible effect on my day-to-day life but that would be both naive and misguided.
My college education cost somewhere around 200 thousand dollars, most of which was covered by an incredibly generous scholarship fund, federal aid, and hundreds of hours of work study. I know I’m one of the lucky ones — four years post-graduation and I’ve paid off all my student loans. I’m free of debt and educated. I’m essentially an American anomaly, I get that. I’m also proof that it is possible and affordable and maybe even a necessity.
Most days, I still feel like I’m approximately 4,793 steps behind my peers in terms of success. I’m probably not as eloquent as people with half as many college credits under their belts. I don’t have statistics to prove it was a worthwhile investment, that my diploma will ever make me more money or lead me to a better life. What I do have is this: one of the greatest accomplishments of my life, painfully proud parents, an infinite well of gratitude, options.
I can’t speak for the thousands of post-grads who are either unemployed or drowning in debt. I’m not defending the outlandish costs of higher education and I’m not convinced it’s right for everyone (despite the years I spent as a college counselor telling kids just that). All I can say with certainty is that, for me, college was necessary and that’s all there is to it.