My College Dream Might Be This Generation's Nightmare
If we millennials got paid a quarter every time someone asked, “Is college worth it?” there would be no more student debt.
The chorus of voices urging young peopleto think long and hard about the relative value of a college degree in their field, to those even blaming us for picking the wrong major, has only grown louder as the recession drags on. College enrollment has dropped for the first time since 2006, signaling a shift in the mindset of millennials on the tail end of our generation that reflects the deep challenges of deciding whether or not college is right for us.
College is expensive, more so each passing day, and the ways of paying for it are only becoming more painful.
To put it bluntly, millennials are in between a rock and a hard place.
The rock is the unholy alignment of rising college tuition and dwindling funding opportunities, and the hard place is that college has the ability to raise lifetime earning potential to a degree that still makes attendance worth it for many. Such a discrepancy starts an internal battle within high school students who are simultaneously hearing that half of college grads are working jobs that don’t require a degree and only 27% of college grads have a job related to their major.
If the choice to go to college today was put before me again, I’d have a lot more to consider. Between the skyrocketing costs of all levels of higher education (public and private, two-year and four-year) and the incredibly daunting reality that college debt comes at the cost of my retirement … well, it sure sounds like a bad deal, especially for the fields like political science — a “fuzzy” major, as my dad called it — often maligned for low salary prospects and relative usefulness in the job market. (For reference, in 2011-2012, the average annual price for undergraduate education was $14,292 at public and $33,047 at private institutions, and 8.2 million students are expected to attend public 4-year institutions in the next year.)
But then there’s that little voice in my head that reminds me of the enduring impact on earnings rendered by a college degree. Advanced education raises your potential lifetime earnings from $1.3 million with a high school diploma to $2.3 million with a college degree (and $3.3 million for a doctoral degree). And then there’s my own story.
I finished my undergraduate degree in 2006 and my master’s degree in 2009. I worked through the pursuit of my master’s in public policy, so I was, fortunately, employed when the economy crashed. I consider myself supremely lucky that I was able to get through my college years relatively unscathed by the economic crisis, but I can’t just credit pure luck. Everyone I know who made it through worked their tails off.
I’ve known what career path I wanted from the age of 14. I rode my bike to town hall meetings to meet with my state senators and representatives and volunteered on multiple campaigns all before I could vote. But I knew all along that the field didn’t pay well, certainly not at the outset of my career. I knew I would need a college degree and figured out quickly what it was going to cost me.
Simply put, I did my homework. I saved all I could, asked my parents outright if and how much they had saved for my college, and applied for every scholarship I qualified for. (And got one!) With a degree as my goal, the financial considerations were just the greatest constraint on my options. I made a four-year plan that plotted out my courses, potential professors and advisors, all with the goal of making sure I graduated on time - earlier if possible. That was the only way I could afford it.
I finished in three years (plus a lagniappe summer semester).
My point in sharing this is not to make it sound like I have OCD. If you were wondering, no, the four-year plan I created definitely didn’t pan out exactly as I planned it at age 18. But it was an exercise that ultimately saved me a lot of heartache and set me up for surviving those first few years where a salary in my field would barely be enough to get by. I never lost sight of what I wanted to do, and course corrected my focus as needed to get to the other side with the big picture constantly leading me.
If college is an entirely bad deal, especially so for kids going into non-STEM fields, then how can you explain someone like me and the many other people in my field?
I’m here to tell you that there is a way to come out the other side. I do not regret going to college, and I’m not alone. Sixty-six percent of us with college degrees don’t actually regret our decision, in spite of student loans and the current job market.
I still firmly believe that for some, for many, college is the right choice to provide critical skills and knowledge to move forward in life with a career. There’s no denying that pursuing a college education is going to hurt a great deal and put you into debt if you aren’t one of the lucky few to find a sustainable pathway through it, but it can all be worth it, even if you don’t go into a STEM field.
Let me put the policy wonk side of me away for a moment and offer some real talk.
What’s missing in the broader media coverage of this issue is an admission that our analysis of the market, the value of a degree, the job prospects on the other side of college — none of it is customized for the members of the millennial generation who have yet to graduate high school.
And I get it. We don’t all know what we want to be when we grow up or what we want to do with our lives. But if you do know, or know enough to direct yourself, college is a great experience and worth every penny. It is under these constraints, and with open eyes, that all you high schoolers now considering college should evaluate yourschool, your job prospects, and your major with the utmost scrutiny.
I’m not that far in front of you, and I can tell you it's hard work.
There are absolutely structural challenges to obtaining a degree, and college is an increasingly expensive investment. Depending on the field, the cost of higher education, the savings going to school consumes, and the accumulation of debt may not be worth, or may not secure, that higher income I mentioned earlier. Bill Gates famously argued in 2010 that the self-motivated learner would be on the web instead of college, and that college need not be place-based to achieve learning potentials.
But we aren’t all going to be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Anyone who tells you that their level of success is anything more than extremely rare for a non-college grad is lying to you. Now, more than ever, the right decision about attending college can only be made by your own exposure to decision-making.
The rest of us have made our mistakes; now, we have to own them. Our tales of woe are available to anyone with an internet connection. I opted for a master’s in public policy instead of a law degree because I thought the value would be better for what I wanted to with the actual knowledge attained. That analysis only I was capable of doing for myself.
Benjamin Franklin said, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” Don’t fail to plan.
We no longer live in a society that can support an undecided major or someone who has no concept of their job prospects after college. Think about your career choice, watch for saturated career fields (too many lawyers!) and enter your very expensive investment college career with as much information as you can reasonably gather. College is still a worthwhile investment for many millennials. The ones who regret it are not the majority, and you can avoid their ranks with a little foresight.
You can give up on the college dream when people tell you it's a nightmare, or you can decide if it’s actually your dream and go from there. Ultimately, the decision to invest in a college education is a very private and personalized one. We’ve been there, and we’ve lived to tell the tale.