College and the workplace – the disconnect

Last month I was driving through Swan Quarter after a prenatal appointment at the Hyde County Health Department.  I happened upon a radio show discussion, among the few stations to choose from, and the topic was the education system.  The host, Diane Rehm and guests all discussed the benefits versus the costs of a college education.  I was interested to happen upon this program after receiving a disconcerting letter from a company that will now be servicing my student loans in place of the Department of Education.  Not only did I notice that the terms of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program were changed (now requires 25 years of “qualifying payments” versus 10 years), I also realized I no longer qualified for an Income Based Repayment Program which would skyrocket the amount I owe monthly pushing me to default on my loans.  This all had me thinking about whether college was the right decision for me.

When I began my college education in 2004 I was encouraged by guidance counselors to choose any major I found interesting and move forward.  Unfortunately, there was no discussion about the economic situation of my family, the reality of repaying student loans without financial support for other expenses (rent, day to day expenses, bills, car payments), and absolutely no assistance understanding the terms of student loans.  Furthermore, there seemed to be a disconnect between educators and the workplace, including the realities of upcoming labor needs in the coming decade. It seemed many professors were professors for many years, and while some had experience in the workplace, they didn’t often share stories about the harsh realities of the workplace.  As a naive 18 year old, excited about college, with no understanding or family history of higher education, I decided to commit to a 3+2 program which would allow me to complete an undergraduate program in 3 years with a graduate program of 2 years to follow.  Nearly $70,000 later I realize this was an incredible mistake for me, and that many low income students must face the reality that education costs may paralyze them financially in the future.  College does not offer guaranteed employment, and often doesn’t prepare students for the workplace.  Spending 3 years in a classroom taught me nothing about interacting with coworkers and superiors, dealing with workplace conflicts, negotiating salary, or  adjusting to a rigorous work schedule of 10-12 hours a day.  My time working at Radio Shack, New York and Company, and Boston Market was more informational and instead of paying for this education I actually earned money.

I started this blog in 2011 when I was questioning my choices, and peering into a bleak financial future.  Today my finances haven’t improved and I’ve learned a new way of life.  As I embark on a new journey into parenthood I find myself questioning whether a college education is the best choice for my child.  Moving forward I’m going to have to get creative, this article offers some leads.  Although I’m not sure in which direction I’ll go, I do know that if I could go back in time I wouldn’t borrow any money in order to fund my education.  I recognize that decision might not have led me to where I am today, but I also fear the consequences of defaulting and live with constant worry about my (and now my child’s) future.

I end this post with a word of caution to those moving forward after high school; discuss the terms of any loan with a lawyer or do research on your own before you sign any document (but you still may find the terms very complicated and difficult to understand), weigh the benefits and costs of owing money, and choose a major based on the needs of the labor market not based on your personal interests (that’s what hobbies are for), be your own advocate and get the most out of your time (don’t take easy courses, take practical courses), work throughout your college years (not just as an intern or at a work study), and network, and don’t go to college just because you think you’re supposed to.  Good luck future college students, and future employees!