It watches me from afar, hoping I will spend it on one too many tequila shots at the bar or on the shoes I’ve been eyeing in the window. It tries to entice me with Groupon deals or weekend getaways and knows that I’m weak, especially after a hard day at work. Every month it sneaks up on me, and it’ll be years until I’m rid of it, but it’s a part of me—like my obsession with Dave Matthews, or my will to live. “It” is an ugly, unkempt, unlovable part of my bank account: The money that is set solely aside for student loans (boo, hiss, snarl!).
With the cost of a college degree ranging from $60,000 for a state university to four times as much at some private schools, and the total student debt in the United States now topping credit card debt, student loans are familiar to most. Unless you had a full ride or a rich grandmother who paid for your education, you start paying loans six months after you graduate, regardless of whether you have a job or not.
I went to college and studied magazine journalism. I had a wonderful experience, met fabulous people, and learned a lot. But once a month, when I pay my student loan bill (which is exponentially larger than it should be, given my income and class), I wonder if college was worth it.
As a freelance writer who still isn’t fully using her degree, was college worth four years of term papers and difficult midterms? And now that I’ve graduated, is it worth decades of student loans, interest rates, and alumni donation letters?
“Tuition has increased twelve-fold in the past thirty years, average debt per graduate has tripled in twenty years, and more than fifty percent of college students are unable to find a job after graduation, with many more in jobs that don’t require the degree they paid for,” explains Adrien Fraise, founder and CEO of online career mentoring program Modern Guild. “This is unacceptable. Students and parents expect a return on their college investment. Students deserve more tangible, career-focused outcomes for themselves, and schools need to show students how to connect academics with careers.”
But what about before college? Instead of focusing on the tough economy and struggling recession, let’s first examine what you did before you pledged a sorority or gained the freshman fifteen or fell in love with your poetry professor. If schools need to connect academics with careers, shouldn’t that begin in high school? Were you pressured to pick your dream school and dream major, or encouraged to take some time off and figure out whether college was even right for you?
“Better guidance for students and their parents is critical,” says Lydia Dobyns, President of New Tech Network, a non-profit organization that transforms public schools into innovative learning environments. Students need to be guided towards their best path, not what’s best for their parents or their alma mater. If you could have taken a year off to take an internship or travel, would you have made fewer mistakes in college?
“While taking a gap year is not feasible for many high school students in the U.S., the lessons learned by taking a gap year—self-discovery, introspection, maturity—can be obtained in other ways, such as a summer job or a career prep course,” Fraise says.
When I graduated high school, I moved to Springfield, Mo. I was obsessed with world religions and wanted to learn everything I could about them, so I thought the Bible Belt was a great place to attend college. After a year there, I knew a career in religious studies was not for me, and moved home. Shortly after, I had another ambition and moved to Detroit for six months before again realizing I was not making the right decision. Once I returned home for the second time, my dad sat me down (after joking he was going to be a “college” for Halloween because of all the memorabilia he had collected during my search) and told me the next place I attended was where I would graduate. I took some community college classes for a year and moved to Philadelphia to pursue what I had always loved—journalism. But what would have happened if I had been better guided in high school? If I had initially chosen a practical major instead of a hobby, what would I have missed out on by not traveling? When you made your choice—passion or practicality—what did you forfeit?
“I don’t look at the specific degree or the name of the university as much as I want to see where the candidate has demonstrated initiative or hear her articulate why she pursued a particular path,” Dobyns says. “Bottom line? It is what one does with the educational opportunities that matters, not the education [itself].”
Alexander Dziri, creator of the College Insider Study Program, agrees that taking initiative is important and believes it’s imperative to persevere, no matter how many times you’re knocked down.
“Success is a continuous path of growth,” Dziri says. “It’s measured by how many downfalls you’ve experienced and how many times you were willing to push through to reach your goal. Having a degree doesn’t mean you’ll be successful in life; it’s only the beginning.”
Here’s a statistic we can all get behind: Women became fifty percent of the college graduates in the United States in the early 1980s and have been steadily advancing since, entering more of the job fields than ever before. Regardless of educational background, women finding jobs in the workforce is the true success story. No matter if or when you graduated, you have so much more to accomplish. Women now have more possibilities and choices than ever before, and it’s important to take advantage of those opportunities.
As pesky as those student loans are, I don’t regret attending college. Beyond the invaluable educational lessons I learned, I attended some wicked fraternity parties, got hundreds of free tans on the quad between classes, and met some incredible people (including one I have been boo lovin’ for three years now!). However, being lucky enough to attend college does not mean I should take advantage of it. I refuse to let my money (and my parents’) be wasted if I’m not using my degree or if I’m unhappy with my particular job. As a woman and a college graduate, idleness would be my biggest regret.
“What’s sad today is that the increasing debt burden is causing students to become more and more short-sighted in their career thinking,” Fraise says. “Students are chasing the large paycheck in order to pay down debt. While I sympathize with them, I would rather see students choose jobs that they are passionate about, that they have the right mix of skills for, and that they can learn from. On-the-job learning is important and will have a large impact in their long-term success.”
Are you a recent graduate, fresh from academia but struggling to find a job? Or are you employed, but finding yourself unsatisfied and unfulfilled at your current gig? Don’t let your degree go to waste!
Get busy, advises Dziri. Companies are hiring only the best because of the recession. Show them what you can do and brag about your talents. Take the time to read, learn, and broaden your horizons.
“If you have an undergraduate degree and aren’t employed in your field or aren’t inspired to work in your field, ask yourself, ‘What can I do to demonstrate my skills, passion, and work ethic to a prospective employer?’” Dobyns suggests. “If the answer is ‘acquire knowledge, take classes, or volunteer to gain that knowledge,’ this may mean working full-time and juggling courses or internships. This tough market requires people who have the skills already developed to do the paying job—and that means the burden is on the potential employee to get the skills—even if that means unpaid or low-paid work to get it.”
Why are you glad that you attended, or didn’t attend, college? Tell us in the comments!