A few of Mike Rowe’s latest posts are shaking the internet. He wrote, “Bernie Sanders tweets, ‘At the end of the day, providing a path to go to college is a helluva lot cheaper than putting people on a path to jail.’” he and I have two different interpretations of Sanders’ tweet. I see it as literal, as “hey, it’s literally cheaper to spend money on education as it is to spend money to incarcerate people. We should be focused on providing an all-around, quality education to everyone, not letting private companies profit off of imprisoning people.” Rowe responded to Sanders tweet with, “I wonder sometimes, if the best way to question the increasingly dangerous idea that a college education is the best path for the most people, is to stop fighting the sentiment directly, and simply shine a light on the knuckleheads who continue to perpetuate this nonsense.” Rowe does bring up an excellent point, one that I feel is very different from the point Sanders’ was making, but it’s a point that should be explored.
Going to college was never not an option for me. I can’t pinpoint specific verbiage or lectures from my mother about why it was not an option, but I just knew it wasn’t. The shame I felt as I was struggling in geometry, in Spanish, in chemistry, overshadowed the things that did well and the things I loved: writing, history, theater. How was I ever going to get into college with a few C’s? I remember feeling like my family thought I was a fuck-up, that I didn’t care about getting a higher education and would be someone they felt was a loser—an embarrassment to the family—because I wouldn’t get a college degree.
Historically, universities have promoted themselves at the expense of many other forms of “alternative education.” The implicit suggestion, reinforced daily by a generation of well-intended guidance counselors and misguided parents, is always the same – get yourself a four-year degree, or accept one of the many “vocational consolation prizes” that result from all other forms of “lesser knowledge.”
As I have mentioned before in past posts, I wanted to be a crime scene investigator. But the combination of struggling in my chemistry class and believing that I had to go to college steered me away. I would have to go to college and major in chemistry or biology, I thought, and I believed I wasn’t smart enough to do that, to major in a science, even though I loved my science classes. I didn’t know that my high school had an ROP program, as everything they pushed was geared toward college: SAT prep, AP courses, etc. I didn’t know what the purpose of ROP was until after I graduated with my BA. So, no one ever told me that I didn’t necessarily need to get a degree to be a CSI, just some formal education/training. My high school never advertised ROP.
Thankfully, I started writing poetry, then fiction. I liked it. Some of my teachers encouraged it. My mother told me about CSSSA and I was accepted for the summer 2004 program. Fast-forward 10 years, and here I am, currently half-way through an MFA, with two other degrees completed. I think I’m about $70,000 in debt at the moment, but I have stopped checking my Sallie Mae account because it’s too goddamn depressing. I did my Bachelors full-time, even had a few on-campus jobs and internships, and a small scholarship from The Academy of American Poets. Then the economy tanked. I managed to find a lucrative job working at Staples—Satan’s Puppet Playhouse—for minimum wage. I saved some money, then I moved out of the country for a year which was, admittedly, partly on a whim, partly to show my family I wasn’t a fuck-up, and partly because I wanted to get out of California and out of the USA. Before I left, I met with an academic advisor at Westwood, a for-profit college, about enrolling in a criminal justice program. Skipping over his sales-pitch, I ultimately ended up going to grad school abroad. There’s something more morally and ethically satisfying about having my student loan money go to a foreign university than to a for-profit college, and the amount of personal and spiritual development that I went through while I lived in Ireland I could not have achieved going to Westwood.
All that aside, I still feel like a fuck-up. Look at all that debt. I keep racking it up. I have nothing to show for it, or I feel like I have nothing to show for it. My current job barely pays the bills, brings me no personal satisfaction, and yet I keep going with this whole grad school thing. Why? Because there is a part of me that believes I can make great contributions to the humanities, and I can’t be a professor at a 4-year college without an MFA. Against all the naysayers, I truly believe I can be a successful writer. I just wish I had gone to community college first, if only to save myself tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt.
Even with my parents help, there was no way I could afford a four-year school. I didn’t qualify for any kind of scholarship, and there was no outside financial aid. But even if there had been, I was not a good candidate for a loan. I was just 18, for crying out loud. I didn’t know my ass from a hot rock, much less what I wanted to major in. So, I stuck to my plan. I spent the next two years at Essex Community College. There, I took dozens of unrelated courses, and started to get a sense of what I wanted to do. (At $26 a credit, I could afford to be wrong.)
My parents did not have to deal with student loans when they went to college in the 70’s. They either had the help of their parents or were actually able to work and pay for the courses at the same time. When the time came for me to go to college, my parents couldn’t afford the private university I picked out (shocker). A small inheritance from my great-aunt helped with the absurd cost of room and board, but my mom had no second thoughts about signing a private loan for 15K in both our names to help with the cost of tuition, apparently. Maybe she actually believed I would get a good job right out of college, and I would be able to pay it back. Hell, I thought I would. I didn’t understand how that would happen or what I needed to do to make it happen; I just thought it…happened. I had no career preparation in high school and no career preparation in college. I just went to class and did my homework—had no idea what the fuck I was doing.
Unlike Mike Rowe, I had established my major prior to starting my freshman year. But, had I gone to a community college, I would have been able to experience a variety of courses and narrowed down my interests a lot faster, possibly allowing me to find direction sooner in my life, instead of at 27. I could have dabbled in anthropology, crime scene techniques, or taken a class on Death and Dying (I’ll enroll just to take that course for fun during the summer) or computer programming or astronomy. But, given the tumultuous nature of my relationship with my parents, I wanted to GTFO, and moving away to go to college was the easiest way to accomplish that; I couldn’t afford to live on my own.
The hardest part about all of this higher education crap is the voice in my back of my head saying, “figure out something else to do that won’t make you want to become the next female serial killer and continue to write/get published.” You know what’s harder than that? Having to hear that shit from other people, because apparently my choice of studies and ambitions to work at a publishing house or for a video game developer warrants unsolicited questions and advice. I already have anxiety attacks about money and will put myself through hours-long binges of research about getting trained as an x-ray technician or sonographer just to make decent money. Did you know that hourly wages for medical sonographers are between $19.85 per hour and $38.32? If I graduated from high school and enrolled in a program like Vanderbilt University’s Diagnostic Medical Sonography program, my total tuition wold be $10,280, adjusted for inflation. If my wage went up a dollar each year, I’d be making around $29 per hour now, with a salary of $55,680. I would probably have my own house by now. I would have zero student loan debt. Yeah, I think about that daily. I don’t need to hear it from other people. “Oh, you’re getting a degree in writing? What are you going to do with that?” Fuck off.
Today, the entire wealth of accumulated knowledge has been democratized. Every known fact can be accessed from a smartphone, and they’re more free courses on You Tube than a curious student could watch in four years of round the clock viewing. Apprenticeship programs and training programs and on-the-job training opportunities abound, but most are ignored, because we’ve convinced ourselves that the path to college is the best path for the most people, cost be damned. And too many employers will look right past a perfect candidate, if they lack a diploma. It’s gotta change.
Mike Rowe, I like Bernie Sanders. I believe he is the only choice for this country, but the entire wealth of accumulated knowledge has not just been democratized, but profitized and capitalized. Do I think all college, public and private, should be free? Yes. Vocational classes and the arts need to be put back into public schools. We need to adopt the mentality that knowledge is something to be shared, not hoarded among the elite, and that all knowledge is valuable and equal. Shakespearean texts are as important as learning how to change the oil on your car. Researching the structural geology of the Hauraki Goldfield is as important as a cable technician. I like this idea of free college, but in a world that still uses money to gauge the value of things, would the free degrees not mean anything compared to private institutions’ degrees?
Like most things in my life, I relate current events back to Star Trek. For this post, I quote something I have quoted many times before: “The economics of the future are somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century. […] The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force of our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity.”—Captain Jean-Luc Picard, “Star Trek: First Contact.” But we are no where near to adopting that mentality…no where near. I think many other millennials can agree with me when I say that we are actually not a complicated bunch. We want very few things: a living-wage appropriate to any location’s cost-of-living; a full-filling job; cost-effective college or vocational education; the ability to provide for our families/future families; to not pay a ridiculous amount for health coverage we can’t use most of the time.
All I know that it is going to take a “racial” with humanity at the forefront of his/her mind in order for things to change. Maybe they’ll get rid of money. But for now, I sure as hell feel cheated and stupid. As much as I love being in school and taking classes that build upon my writing and editing abilities, I feel I don’t have anything to show for it because I don’t make enough money to support myself, because I haven’t published a lot of work yet. And I hate that I feel that way. So, here’s to college, something that everyone can benefit from and yet is financially crippling most of us.