I remember the month before high school graduation, there were these little cap-and-gown-shaped notecards on this wall down by the school entrance, with the names of all the seniors and where they were going. We had future Ivy Leaguers, a lot of kids going to the (very good) state school, and many smaller schools I hadn’t heard of before. And then there were those of us who weren’t “going” anywhere, except half an hour down the road to the local community college. I remember the teachers insisting, with a vague look of pity on their faces, that I put my little notecard up there, too. And I did, but it was almost more embarrassing than doing nothing at all — than implying you weren’t going to even attempt higher education. After all, there were a lot of cool kids who were going to travel the world, get apprenticeships, or move somewhere far away and start a new life. I could have been one of them, if I was vague about my answers. But no, I was going to community college.
And why? Aside from the fact that I was a mediocre student in high school who didn’t really bother applying, I knew that I couldn’t afford it. My family isn’t poor by any stretch, but I wasn’t going to get any scholarships, and considering I vaguely knew I wanted to “write” things, my parents weren’t going to cut a check for a decent chunk of their income so I could mess around. Every school, it seemed, was out of my reach — even the ones that were “only” about 15k per year, all things considered. If I wanted to go to them, I would have to take out a loan, and the ones that really enticed me would have required about 35k or more in debt per year. It was simply not an option, so I didn’t apply.
The stigma, of course, was more than I expected it to be. Sure, there was the acute disappointment of missing out on all of the awesome, interesting, fun, sexy things my friends were doing away in their dorm rooms in these strange new lands like Vermont and Indiana. There was the letdown of not being able to move anywhere right out of school, something that everyone that age awaits with painful impatience. But there were also the snide comments from friends, the palpable feeling of being pitied, and the knowledge that there is this incredibly cool club that you are not a part of. Even some of my friends’ parents weren’t immune to the loaded questions, and the implications that they “expected better from me,” or that I was “too smart to be doing this.” It was a depressing time, that summer before college, because I knew it was simply a countdown to an even more pointed sense of distinction between myself and my friends that “made it.”
But, much to my surprise, I loved my time at CC. Mine was a school that, for what it’s worth, is often ranked as the best of its kind in the country (a statistic that, as you can imagine, is often mocked), but I quickly realized that there were many there who took that ranking quite seriously. The staff was hard-working and helpful, the faculty, some of the best teachers I’ve ever had. I took in everything I could — I joined honor societies, did school plays, took winter classes, I even started a club with a friend that ended up having about 60 people in it and became one of the best experiences of my life. I realized that what some people had told me was very true, your education is what you make of it. And all of my friends there — the involved, intelligent, motivated people I worked with in class and in extra-curricular activities, were just as determined to make their time worth it. They simply couldn’t afford to put themselves in debt — for a variety of reasons — and were determined to get those crucial scholarships for their last two years. I’m proud to say that each and every one of them got some money to go to a great school, and most are now finished with absolutely no debt. Two, in fact, transfered to Ivy League schools, one on a full ride.
I ended up taking a different path than I imagined, turning down some of the great offers that were made to me and moving to France to continue school here. But I naturally kept in touch with all of my friends from high school, from CC, and who went to all different colleges. And now that graduation has come and gone for many of them, the picture is quite different. So many of them — the very people whose parents were dripping with condescension over their children going to a “real” school, despite the debt they were accruing — are unable to find jobs. They are working in restaurants, as secretaries, in unpaid internships, in any place that will hire them. They’re struggling to continue to justify the immense amount of debt they now live with — from $25,000 to over $100,000 — and are crossing their fingers that something will come along. They of course do not regret having the “college experience” all four years. Nor, I’m sure, do they regret the great friends they made and things they learned while at school, but it clearly came at a price. They have hundreds of dollars of repayment per month, and many are living at home because it’s simply not financially viable to have their own place right now. And of course, some of my friends from CC are having similar trouble with finding employment, but all of them are debt-free or close, able to live their lives relatively untethered and support themselves easily on the jobs they get in the meantime.
It is hard to watch my friends struggle, to hear them lament their choice to put themselves in debt for what now seems to them like a worthless piece of paper. I love these people and know that they worked hard for what they have. Even a friend of mine with a top-tier mechanical engineering degree had almost a year of frustrating rejection before landing the job he has (and, luckily, loves) now. Times are hard, and I don’t think that their uncomfortable position is something they deserve. I think it’s just a symptom of the time we live in, but it’s also a symptom we need to acknowledge and accept. My sister is graduating high school this year, and I’ve watched many of her close friends make the justification for putting themselves enormously in debt with a flippant “college only comes once!” They have eschewed scholarships to less-perfect schools, or even a stint at nearly-free CC, to go to New York, or have that time at the tiny liberal arts school, or get that 50-person-per-year film degree. And my sister, who is making the same choice I did at the time and keeping herself out of debt, is seeing the same kind of stigma. She knows she wants to work in the arts (special effects makeup, to be precise), and she knows that the last thing one needs when pursuing a career in the art world is a massive amount of debt on one’s shoulders. The way she’s doing it, she can probably finish her degree and do an apprenticeship for maybe 5k in debt maximum. And yes, that means she’s worked every summer since 14 and saved nearly everything, and it means she’s going to scrimp as much as she can during college, but it means that she’s going to start her life a free woman and be able to make her way without crushing debt. She is far smarter about money than I am, I can only imagine the opportunities that await her.
It breaks my heart to see her peers making these same mistakes, and mocking her in a similar fashion, when we clearly know that they are just that — errors in our collective judgement. We know how the system works, we know what debt does to people, and we know what bachelor’s degrees — especially BAs — mean these days. We know that none of these things are guarantees, and yet we still let ourselves get carried away by a campus tour and a brochure filled with empty promises about getting hired. You have top-tier law schools getting sued by former students because they lie about their employment rates, how can we keep convincing ourselves that a fine arts degree is worth 50k of debt? There are clear ways to go about college — if college is even the right choice for us — without having it hinder our futures in such a way. We can put our noses to the grindstone and make unglamorous choices, and we owe it to ourselves, and to our generation, to not look down on such a pathway. The difference in lifestyle between those who’ve already bought a house’s worth of debt before they’re 22 and those who finish their educations free and clear is astounding, and it’s the kind of freedom we all deserve. Colleges are selling something, and we’re certainly buying, but let’s stop pretending that it’s still the promise of a future.