Monday, September 10, 2012

College 101

Okay guys, it's time for some tough truth: not everyone should go to college.

My dad is a genius. Literally. He's taken the IQ tests and was a member of Mensa until he opted out because he was tired of all the flyers they kept sending him. He skipped a grade in school, he coasted through high school, he was admitted to Dartmouth as a chemistry major, and he got kicked out in his freshman year because his depression was so crippling that he couldn't even get out of bed. He transferred to a small Christian school in Massachusetts, where he met my mother, and when they got married and moved to Baltimore, he got jobs and worked while she finished school. He never graduated from college, and is still one of the most brilliant, talented, educated people i know.

I know someone who is borderline retarded. I'm not being insensitive or politically incorrect -- she is actually close to being intellectually disabled. She told me this herself. Her IQ is 85 (mental retardation is 70 or below, 100 is considered average). She spent some time in rehab as a teenager. She did a lot of drugs and drank a lot of booze when she was younger, and she didn't get a chance to start college until she was well into her twenties. But she finished her degree in four years, and last i heard she was checking out grad schools.

Here's the thing: we've all seen the articles about how people with graduate and postgraduate degrees earn more money over their lifetime than those without. But the important part of that phrase is "over their lifetime". When you graduate from college, you have two choices: find a job immediately and start paying off your student loans, or take out more loans to go to grad school so that you can postpone paying your student loans and also postpone finding a full-time job with good pay. Jobs that require degrees are harder to get than jobs that don't, and they often don't pay as well at the entry level. Once you've earned more degrees and advanced your education (and your debt) further, you can get promotions and raises, and by the time you retire you'll be making bank. But you still have to pay off your student loans, and you may find yourself eating ramen and cold pizza for several years after obtaining your BA or BS. College is expensive, and it will be a long time before you see any financial benefits from your degree.

If you want to go to college so that you can make more money, turn back now. It will be a long time before you can realize that dream. Your best money-making bet is to get an Associate's degree in business from a community college, find a good internship or entry-level position in a financially stable corporation, and work your way up. When you've been there long enough, they may help you pay for additional classes, which can also be taken at a community college or even online. If all you want is to make money, don't travel out of state to a private, liberal arts college and pay for four years of tuition, room and board, student fees, and books. It will likely be many long, hard years before you see any return on that investment. Some people are luckier than others and fall into their dream job immediately after graduation, and they make six figure salaries after two years and pay off all their student loans in fifteen months. Do not assume that this person will be you. The only reason that they got that lucky is because they never assumed that they would get that lucky. They worked hard, they took chances, they pursued the things they wanted. And for every one of those stories i can tell you ten more of people who took years to get any luck, of people who slacked off and never achieved their dreams, of people who worked as hard as they could but still had to settle for second best, or even third.

I know that culturally, college is viewed like thirteenth grade. It's sort of assumed that you'll be going to college, studying for four years, getting a bachelor's degree in something. But i have seen so many people graduate with a degree in liberal arts, or business, or English, just because they picked something they liked in high school or something their roommate was studying or something that sounded easy to get a degree in. Those people ended up working in pet grooming shops, or in a department store, or as someone's secretary or receptionist. If that's what you want to do, you should do it right out of high school, instead of wasting four years and tens of thousands of dollars. If you work in a pet grooming shop for a few years and then suddenly realize that you want to be a vet, or a research biologist, or an architect, you can always go back to school. Yes, it's harder to go back when you've been gone for a while. But it's also hard to pay rent and student loans at the same time when you're working 35 hours a week at Dunkin Donuts. And if you work at a pet grooming shop for a few years and then suddenly realize that all you want to do is groom pets, start taking night classes, or online courses, and get a business degree and open your own pet grooming shop.

Don't let anyone pressure you into college, including your parents. Ask them if they really want to pay for four years of education when you don't know what you want to study. Make a deal with them: you can live at home and work and save money for one year. If at the end of the year you know what you want to major in, you'll go to school. If you don't, you'll move out and support yourself. Do some research: show them statistics about student loan default rates, about how much money you can expect to make your first year after graduation, about the average debt of college students after graduation. Tell them that you are making the responsible decision to hold off on spending money for college until you're sure it will be worthwhile.

If you know exactly what you want to major in and where you want to work and what you want to do with your life, you may still want to consider a state school or community college, or postponing college for a year or two. College is fucking expensive, and it takes a long time to pay off. Even if you are one thousand percent certain and committed and motivated and driven, it will take a long time to realize your dreams. It will take a long time until you can live the life you've dreamed of. Do not get drunk in a hot tub three months after graduation and start crying in a fake British accent about how you've been waiting "so long" but you can't find a job (yeah, Fay, thanks for ruining my 21st birthday). It's been three months. This is going to be a long, expensive, difficult, stressful, exhausting struggle. Be patient, work hard, and understand that you're going to face a lot of failure before your "big break".

Think of it this way: if you inherited some sort of legacy that gave you an allowance of $100,000 a year, what would you do with your time? Would you still want to write? Would you still want to teach? Would you still want to clean teeth? Would you still want to sell clothes? What is the one thing you could see yourself doing for the rest of your life, even if you didn't need any money? Now imagine that you are getting an allowance of $30,000 a year. It's enough to make ends meet, as long as you don't have kids. But working would give you some extra income, would help you save and afford big purchases and maybe even support a family. What is the one thing you would want to do? Now imagine that there is no allowance, no inheritance. It is up to you, to your talents and skills and passions to support yourself and your future family. What do you want to do?

If the answers you're coming up with are things like "socialize", "something that would give me lots of vacation days and leave my weekends free", or "something with a good benefits package", don't go to a liberal arts college. Maybe don't go to college at all. Go to a vocational school, take business classes online, work full-time at a bagel shop or part-time as a security guard or intern at a business. But if the answers you're coming up with are things like "counsel suicidal teenagers" or "write poetry" or "teach seventh grade math", go to college. Get your degree. Just understand that, while all of the stress and money and hardship will be worth it in the end, the end is a long way from where you are now. Be prepared.

No comments:

Post a Comment