Guest post by: C. Cryn Johannsen
Education is not about the return on an investment. Education cannot be assessed in terms of market rates. Education is more than the monetary value which we ascribe to it. Education should be outside of the realm of the marketplace. These are the things I often think about and believe when I am considering the larger socio-cultural significance of earning a degree and being shouldered with the burden of so much debt. However, one of my readers at my own site (Education Matters), who calls himself Spekkio, recently discussed the "Cult of College" in a post that received a wide variety of reactions. In this post, I simply asked: "Did you pursue an education only for a future return, i.e., was it merely an investment and nothing beyond that?"
This may sound contradictory vis-a-vis the statements I just made above, but I do, to a certain extent, agree with Spekkio. Nevertheless, I also think there is a critical value to being trained by universities (whether it be in the humanities or the sciences) because these critical thinking skills that we obtain in these institutions allow us to go on and do good things for society, or at least that is the hope. But not everyone agrees with my take on education, even those who support my advocacy work and are part of the indentured educated class. One person recently shared her story with me, and made it clear that she regretted ever going to school. Her testimonial is important because it demonstrates how cynical people have become about the degrees they possess. I don't blame them. Instead, I blame the entire system. I blame the U.S. Government. I blame the student lenders. I blame the universities and the colleges. As this lending industry grew and flourished, the entire system was ultimately created by bad decisions and bad policies. However, systems can be changed. If we continue to point out the inadequacies and injustices of institutional power, we can eventually change it. Furthermore, we're equipped to change it. Our own recent history in the U.S. provides us with models for this type of change, too. That's why I intend to continue this battle.
In the meantime, let's read what Ms. Q has to say about the pointlessness of obtaining a degree:
I grew up in a working class family where there was very little money and that made saving money for college impossible for my parents. I was taught as a child and bought into the idea that college is the way to a better life. I accepted the whole American Dream lie, work hard, go to college, [and] you can get a good job and have a good life. Since my family was unable to help me with my education and made too much money to qualify for grants, the only way to fund my education was through student loans.
I took out both unsubsidized and subsidized loans, along with private loans. My loans went to fund pretty much my entire cost of education including room and board. I chose a major without much thought, I picked what really interested me instead of picking a degree in something that there were jobs in. I received both a Bachelor's and Master of Arts in Sociology. My only justification is that I was young and stupid and made a very serious mistake.
After graduation it took me almost a year to find a job and that job didn't last more than two weeks, it was a job that a person with my degree could get, apparently I wasn't very good at being a job developer. It took me a little over a month and I got hired as case manager at a community mental health agency where I helped people with severe and persistent mental illness. Unfortunately, my boss was very verbally abusive and a bully[;] she would sometimes corner me in rooms and threatened me with me with my job, it was a very bad situation and I felt like a battered wife. I was eventually let go because I had finally had enough and stood up for myself and was fired the next day. The last two months of that job I was put on medical leave by my doctor for two weeks because I had a nervous breakdown due to the bullying from my boss. I started seeing a counselor because of the stress and was suicidal for a few weeks and was nearly hospitalized.
After that I found a job that is way below my qualifications, a caregiver to people with developmental disabilities. This job you can get with only a high school diploma and pays slightly above poverty level wages. I love this job[;] it just doesn't pay enough. Unfortunately, shortly after I took this job, the big recession hit. I have been unable to secure a better paying job.
Currently, I am around 90k in both federal and private student loan debt. I have defaulted on a loan to [my bank] and made payment arrangements to pay $75 per month and that is the max I can pay. My federal student loan debt is 73k and I have never once been able to make the $370 monthly payment; the forbearance keeps raising my debt, and I can't get on the IBR plan because I can't afford a monthly payment. I just got out of forbearance, am 3 months behind and am scared to call. I get calls daily. My credit rating is shattered. My two private loans were co-signed by my grandmother who is also low income, When I can’t pay they call and harass her. I feel horrible, I've ruined my relationship with her, ruined her credit, and cause her daily stress which aggravate her health problems.
My student loans have ruined my life, my relationship with my family, my credit, self-esteem you name it. I will turn 30 in September and thought that by this point in my life I would have a career, but all I have is debt and disappointment. I don't find it fair that I cannot get bankruptcy protection. We are told (lies) the education is good debt, investment in yourself, etc. and if it is the responsible thing to do then why are we being treated so horribly. You can rack up a bunch of credit card debt, buy a house you can't afford, gamble your money away and you can get it wiped away, those are clearly very irresponsible things so I say are we not punishing the wrong people, I think so! I think everybody deserves a second chance in life. We even give that to convicted felons, they can get out of prison on parole and there are even programs to help them find jobs!
All this debt makes me feel like a total loser and failure. I am a recovering alcoholic with two years sobriety and some days I get so depressed because of my debt I nearly relapse. All I can do is get my voice out there like a lot of us and pray one day change happens!
What if Ms. Q.'s notion that going to college is pointless and the mistake catches on? I've already been told by parents of young children that they don't want their children going to school. What if the secret gets out, and everyone realizes that, at this juncture, higher education is nothing but a sham? Would that change the injustices of this system?
C. Cryn Johannsen is the founder of Education Matters and this article is part of an occasional series featuring the views of guest writers.