Sunday, March 8, 2009

Because FAFSA is on my mind...

I first matriculated in 1995, but it wasn’t until 2008 that I finally earned my Bachelor’s. Thirteen long years. Private college, dropping out, community college, dropping out, part-time attendance at the university, then squeaking-in one full-time semester. Finally graduating. My problem wasn’t that I lacked the study skills. I wasn’t flip-flopping between majors (though there was the short time during which I had the exciting, if improbable, double-major of Zoology). I didn’t abandon my pursuit to backpack across Europe (I wish!). Nope. I was a repeat drop-out because I couldn’t pay tuition. Money, money, money.

It was (and I suppose still is) embarrassing to be (have been) a college drop-out. I felt like a failure. Had to go back to redeem my intellectual reputation. Graduating did serve to heal part of that wound. I felt as though I’d finally achieved something that I’d deserved. But what was I expecting for the day after, exactly?

Having graduated allows me to bask in a general feeling of  self-satisfaction. A “Hurrah! I had a goal and I did it!” But warm fuzzies aside, the degree has gained me little that’s tangible. Yes, I learned some fascinating things at college. However, there hasn’t been quite the amazing life revolution that it appears I’d been unconsciously expecting. I didn’t become known as a super genius. I didn’t learn how to write a novel in thirty days. I didn’t get a new and perfect job. I didn’t even get a raise (my office prizes experience over degrees, dedication to the desk rather than to the books—as do many businesses—so if anything, I lost points by taking time off for classes).

So here I sit, piece of paper in a fancy red holder in a box somewhere upstairs, and instead of feeling like my collegiate pursuits sincerely helped me, I am bogged-down by the thought of all the debit I incurred during said pursuit.

It’s because I’ve been thinking more about being a stay-at-home-mom. It’s my dream. It’s always been my most sincere ‘plan’ for my adulthood, even beyond attending college. And it’s frustrating because I’m not able to live it out now as I’d hoped. I understand that it just isn’t a “now” type thing, sure. But when I delve into how to make it happen someday, I can imagine how we’d save money by growing some of our own produce and buying the rest through CSA. I can plan how we’ll buy second-hand everythings. We already use cloth diapers. We can hang our laundry on a line to dry. We could sell one of our cars. We could wait for me to stay at home until we’ve paid off the credit cards. All that seems very doable. But. Then I start thinking about the one big debt that won’t be going away any time soon. School loans. They are GIGANTIC and scary and freak me out whenever I think about them. And even if we were to claim bankruptcy and move to a yurt and survive off of the land, we’d have those loans hanging over us. Haunting us.

Not to say that I’m unhappy I’m edumacated. I’m just dismayed at the thought of spending the next thirty years paying-back my loans. It makes me wonder whether I might have been better-off accepting the fact that I couldn’t afford college and dedicating my days to enriching my mind via the public library and lectures while working to excel in the office and saving my pennies for a rainy day. Like now, when I have an infant and would love to stay home with her.

If I had to live the past 10 years over again and knew what I know now—that getting a degree would mean I would need to leave my infant with a caregiver so I could pay off my loans—I believe I may have rethought the pursuit of a degree. And I wonder how many other people jump into the college system without truly realizing that it has the potential to limit their future options as much as it may expand them.

The Feb 2nd ’09 issue of Forbes published an article that suggested Americans take some time to reconsider our mass pursuit of higher education. The article states that “the premium that college grads earn over high schoolers has remained relatively constant over the past five years, [but] the cost of acquiring a degree has risen at twice the rate of inflation.” So, even those who never wanted to stay home with kids—those who were pursuing an actual career track—are still finding themselves in debit up to their eyeballs and no grand way to pay it off. Their post-grad jobs are just not enough. We collegiate folks are all fighting over the same $16/hr jobs that we would have been working in had we never darkened our alma maters’ doors.

Now, I don’t particularly care for the lens through which Forbes views the world. The ideas found in the magazine are often of a nature that focus on keeping the status quo intact, so the magazine’s wealthier readers remain on top of the world. Certainly, dissuading others from education while enjoying it themselves would continue to perpetuate their well-honed system. Most realistically, the point of the article is to dissuade those who have from lending to those who have-not (either directly or via their voting powers) in what they appear to describe as a benevolent act of kindness. They know best, after all. Hey there,  you don’t need to go into debt, why don’t you just work in my factory. Nevertheless, the theory has its interesting points—that persons are being duped into believing that a degree is necessary to attain success by a society claiming to be interested in betterment, when rather than being empowered by the pursuit they’ll be losing their financial freedom. Obviously, for many the broadened avenues of thought that might be achieved are still worth something that, if they can’t be measured as a monetary earning, are nevertheless extremely valuable. And I have to believe that for many there will be a monetary gain even with loans. But I understand the argument about college not being a guaranteed ticket to a white-collar job, a hearty paycheck, and a house in a leafy suburb. Nor, it turns out, does it help you become June Cleaver.


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