College Wasn’t Worth It

I’m afraid that college wasn’t worth it. I’m afraid that I was tricked. It’s not that I had a bad time at the University of Michigan. To the contrary, I loved my environmental science program. I learned much about the ecology, economy, and policy of environmental management. Everybody said that I must go to college, and the culture of being an 18-year-old at a competitive public high school encouraged going to the fanciest school you could gain admittance to.

I could’ve gone to a state school, as an in-state student, with the advantage of half-tuition because my mother works at an Illinois state university. I don’t even remember paying attention to or knowing that option existed, but college looked like that fantasy world where you could sit around having intellectual discussions at the local coffee shop late into the night. To a high schooler with aspirations of high academia, that sounded magical.

I graduated in 2008, into the pit of the recession. 5 years later, having done everything “right” and getting good grades and a degree from a venerable institution and networking but still mucking along without ever getting any job that required a brain or a degree, I look back on college with regret at the enormous debt load for both myself and my parents and feel entirely ridiculous at my expensive choices. Is it fair to encourage this of 18-year-olds? We all know that our judgment of anything at that stage in life is questionable.

Why is it reasonable to put the onus on 18-year-olds to take on a mountain of debt before you are legally able to buy beer (possibly to blur reality as you approach the point where you must start paying that debt back)? Maybe we should at least raise the required borrowing age.

You’re supposed to do your work in high school, go to a good college, graduate, and then you’re supposed to get a nice job that will enable paying that debt off. In theory, you can then move on to other “adult” things, such as buying property, getting married, having kids, or traveling the world. Every single one of those things sounds entirely unattainable due to both the debt hanging over my head and the lousy income I’ve had in the past 5 years. They don’t balance out.

Noam Chomsky refers to student debt as a way to subdue the student population. The resistance of the ’60s and ’70s led to a desire to indoctrinate the activist young people, to keep them in line with standardized “education.” If people have to manage their enormous debt, they won’t have time to rally against a damaging system or think about any societal problems. You can’t declare bankruptcy on student loans. They follow you around and garnish your wages, if you are lucky enough to have wages.

Other countries have free higher education, both poor and rich. We have turned our university system to the corporate model, where we have increasing numbers of deans and sub-deans and larger administrations overall. The members of the administration make a lot of money.

Everybody is supposed to go to college, but does everybody need to go to college? Colleges and high school counselors ought to quit selling the competitiveness of fancy schools to clueless high schoolers, and focus on the debt that you are signing your life away for. Prospective students need to consider, seriously, whether or not they should take that debt on, or whether time and money might be best spent after high school on traveling or building or just taking time off to think about it.

The people who seem most well-acclimated to college and life together are those that take years to figure it out, to work and pay as they go. They finish eventually. This seems like the most reasonable path to take.

We don’t have the same GI Bill as we did in the 1950s, when veterans of World War II came home and got to go to school, when we were a poorer country, enabling the U.S. and its citizens to grow. College isn’t supported in any way now by our country, besides the rhetoric that you won’t get anywhere without it. We just measure intellectual worth by credentials, so we continue to require some form of standardized education to judge each other on.