Education is Free. A Diploma, Not So Much!

This is an editorial, an opinion. If you feel my words are out of line please remember that I did things on my own too, and that my efforts mattered even if you want to dismiss them due to your perception of my privilege. Sacrifice is called sacrifice for a reason; it is not meant to be an easy road. It is harder to maintain an A average than to earn it. Keep that in mind when commenting.

Here’s my beef with the student loans problem: It wasn’t just created by the high cost of education, it was created by the people that decided to go into debt to get a diploma. Education on its own is free. You can get mentors, go to the library and read, ask for tutors for certain subjects, and network with vocational and trade schools to figure out if they are a better fit than college. An entire generation of parents lied to their kids because they thought that getting a degree equaled getting a job and having a steady income, but they forgot to tell their children not all degrees were made the same. They let their child dream of Harvard and Yale when they couldn’t afford going to public state university. There is a disconnect between the causes of the debt and the debtors: you didn’t have to go to college if you couldn’t afford it. You could have started your own business instead, or done an apprenticeship before taking the plunge and borrowing the money.

In a perfect world, parents need to save for at least a third of the cost of college, which includes room and board. The latter is an added cost to college that many don’t account in their original calculations. If you can only afford the college courses and not the room and board portion, you shouldn’t apply and accept going to that particular school. Education is a right but attending Northwestern isn’t. The moment you accepted to go to places far away from home to find yourself, on loaned money, you made the choice to repay that amount in the terms signed in the contract. The fact that you didn’t educate yourself on the subject or didn’t realize how hard it was going to be to get a job after graduation isn’t on the banks or Wall Street; it is on you.

A lot of people are naive about the realities of life. They follow blindly what others advice and never get around to fact check or internalize the ramifications of going with the herd. Back when I was in college people got student loans for trivial things like computers, cars, cell phones and clothes instead of using their scholarships to save for a rainy day or for future loan payments. I have no pity for those who decided that they deserved to get a Ph. D. in a field that would yield them more pain and suffering than income. The greater good can only be achieved when it is also the right thing for you to pursue. If you don’t have the means to get a degree, you should reevaluate your options and only make decisions that will expand your success and not hinder it. No one put a gun to your head to sign on the dotted line and throw your future away on a bad financial move.

At this point some of you might be thinking, but MrsEnginerd, what about the poor or the single mothers? What about those people that are smart but don’t have the means to attend a good college? Well for some of these groups we insist on patronizing there are a lot of programs and support mechanisms, oftentimes managed by the colleges and universities, that help them find degrees that will yield them the most bang for buck. There are corporations that offer incentives for low level or low income employees to go to school and study, which is not impossible to do albeit it is hard and very demanding on your work-life balance. It is not fair, yes, that if you were born to a middle class family no one cares to help you other than high interest loans but your parents and school counselors should have warned you in advance about the costs associated with getting a professional degree. My point is that there is more than one way to skin this cat and a student loan was just one of them. Even if we made education affordable at a state level, this wouldn’t mean that Harvard has to lower its prices. No private institution will because they have a business case that justifies their expenses and operating costs. I bet that if you made certain community colleges affordable or even better for free, people would not favor them because culturally, we are still telling kids that Community College or U is for poor people or losers. There is a stigma associated with cheap education that many Americans will not be able to overlook unless we train them to look beyond the perception and into the solution.

You know who truly ruined the system? The universities and institutes going after people who are gullible or desperate enough to enroll in programs that are not accredited or have non-transferable credits. For a big chunk of the student loan debt population, these schools were the reason why they are into debt and sinking. Because these practices are more akin to fraud than they advertise, I am all for finding a way to sue these schools and get justice for the students, be it relief or assistance to finish out a degree that will actually be usable in the real world. However, since we are all free to choose what we want to do with our lives and what we decide to study, it is hard to intervene on behalf of a subset of the population when they willingly got themselves into the mess of owing money for a “fake” degree. They held themselves hostages from the get go by trusting a system they did not know how to navigate. If it is too good to be true, it is! From my position of pseudo privilege it is easy to get on my high horse and deny mercy or leniency but I didn’t get into debt because my parents warned me about the racket that was higher education. Why the rest of you didn’t know about these scheme baffles me. This is what we need to change, not just the cost but the reasons behind them; greed and apathy.

To put their children through college my grandparents scrapped together what they could and went without luxuries until the last child graduated. My mother decided to help them out by becoming ROTC and later enlisting in the ARMY, earning a Master’s Degree after 20 years as an officer. She didn’t have to grab a rifle and kill people in the front lines to get her degree and neither did my father, who 13 years earlier had followed the same path to become a Biology major and possibly a medic. His paperwork got crossed and he lost the opportunity to go from soldier to medic and beyond but he managed to retire after 30+ years of service with a pension that helped put 2 out of his 4 children through college. As a single parent, my mom saved for my sister’s and my own education, from the time we were babies. This meant that she didn’t get many luxuries either but still managed to live a very fulfilling life. She didn’t hit six digits until very late in her career, at which time she was able to pay out of pocket for the thousands of dollars her younger daughter (my sister) required to get both her Associates and Bachelor’s degrees. Now we can proudly tout that we have four generations of college grads, our own version of the American Dream.

Another problem with the high cost of education is that the wages haven’t kept up with the cost of living and inflation for many jobs. On the professional side though, salaries and wages seem to have increased at a rate higher than inflation but not everyone will qualify for a cushy job in a blue collar environment because, you guessed it, of the degree they could secure. I have met a lot of bright students who went the altruistic route and became teachers and nurses, and it irritates me to know that the amount we pay them pales in comparison to the amount it takes to secure that degree. I am behind anyone who proposes that we pay these groups more; I’ll sign that petition in a heartbeat. Same goes for police officers, fire crews and emergency personnel. I am not a fool; many people of academic inclinations won’t touch these fields because of the wages, and these fields are where we need our best minds. These are the professions with the highest range and impact into our quality of life and wellbeing. Teachers herald the future generations and are the gatekeepers of our progress. They are our first line of defense and we treat them poorly by not giving them the tools and supplies they need to succeed in educating our children.

I have many friends and role models who were self-made by the time they got to college, or peeps who knew what they wanted from life and how to get it, in spite of not having a degree. I can’t wholeheartedly relate to the debate because to me education wasn’t a necessity or out of reach but rather a luxury. To top it off, my state university was subsidized by local government and federal grants and even out of state students could pay less than 6k a year to earn a highly coveted engineering, law or medical degree. My sister went to a private school and even though it was expensive it wasn’t prohibitive. She lived at home and commuted because obligatory dorm stays are not a part of the college experience which makes it even cheaper to study (that’s an amount of 8k a year in some state and private colleges). Because of all the information I received during my college searches I knew what my options were and which propositions to avoid. I shared this information with anyone who would listen, especially those applying to in college to make sure they didn’t go in over their heads in debt. The sensible people found a way to make sure getting a certification or degree didn’t break their bank or their future.

I can’t fake outrage or solidarity towards a group of peers that felt they didn’t have an alternative but I can help shape the policies and procedures that will regulate how education is reformed to make sure this situation doesn’t propagate. If we had all decided that we couldn’t afford State U and not attended college, by the laws of supply and demand, prices would have gone down to make sure these institutions wouldn’t go bankrupt. That’s why I didn’t sign up for the USA brand of college education and was able to skip the loan application line. I didn’t qualify for scholarships either so I could have played the victim and gone into debt to be righteously mad now about loan practices, asking for debt forgiveness without a care in the world because I deserved it. It is this sense of entitlement that got us into this mess in the first place. Our complacency has stifled the ingenuity of a people who used to work hard for what they desired. Now their descendants clamor for everything to be done fast and for cheap because hard work and abstinence is not for them. Education is not one of those things you can hurry or expect to come at zero cost to you. Be it taxes or a straight up fee, the funds have to come from somewhere.

In the end, it won’t be the candidate with the best proposal to please the coddled Millennials that will win the election, but the one that can prove that by restructuring our current budget expenditures we can please the majority of the electorate. Because the majority of people have financial problems that are not pertinent to my current social and economic standing, my opinion will not count for much unless I decide to become a part of the committee spearheading changes. Whether it is the ridiculous prices of homes, the exaggerated interest rates on loans and our inability to create new industry or jobs, it all can be resolved if we help each other avoid falling into the sand traps and we lend a hand to those caught in the quicksand to alleviate their pain and suffering, and eventually end it. Giving people stuff for free only makes them dependent on you because you haven’t taught them the value of earning it. I am all for making life affordable once more, but not at the expense of my family’s comfort. Find a way that doesn’t include punishing those who are higher earners with a higher tax burden and you will have my full support. Complaining will not get us anywhere, only action will save us. I hope you hold whomever is elected in the next cycle and yourself accountable for enacting and affecting the necessary change past the next fall. If not, all these conversations will have been for naught.


BTW, start saving for your children’s education. That 4K Ultra HD TV will mean nothing to your offspring if they have the burden of paying for college plus catering to your retirement needs because you spent all your money on hedonistic quests. The fiscal liquidity of the future is in your hands now. I hope you won’t ask for a loan to bail yourself out too…

 

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