Blog / Thoughts

Ramblings on the Cost of Education

I’ve written about the commodification of education and my thoughts on how we, the “millenials” just need to suck it up. With the recent changes made to (American) student loans and repayment, however, I decided to elaborate a little on my thoughts on what post-secondary education has become.

When I was in high school, I didn’t think much of student debt and how loans were a huge burden to take on. Back in those days (and when I say that, I mean 6-7 years ago when I wasn’t a senior yet), I thought more about disposable income and wasn’t financially literate. However, in possibly the most responsible move I ever made, I decided to stay at home to “go to college” as Americans would say.

Tuition-image

That’s right – I didn’t take out loans to live in a dorm room. I didn’t go to a school that charged over 10,000 dollars per year in tuition. I didn’t have a lot of typical college experiences. I went with my gut (and what my parents advised) and decided to stick it out. While it may seem like an odd choice for a teenager, I decided that I wasn’t willing to take out debt to finance my education when I could do it closer to home for a lot less.

There were days where I regretted this decision. I felt like I was missing out on something, even though a lot of my friends in school were also commuters. I thought I was being held back, so for the first two years or so of school, it just didn’t feel like it was supposed to. Eventually, by third year, I decided to change that. I got involved, did more unconventional programs, and started to work in an area that has undoubtedly boosted my career prospects and helped me land my current job. I’m the youngest in my office – heck, probably the whole building – and although it felt weird at first, sometimes I love it. I missed out on some things in school (the dorm experience being a major one), but I got to do things I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. I have several more years of experience under my belt than anyone would expect anyone my age to have, and it’s diversified. Best of all? I have no student debt.

Now, you may be thinking, “your parents probably paid for all of your tuition”. The answer to that is: no, they didn’t. My parents definitely helped, but it was under certain conditions; their house, their rules. I was required to fork over my earned cash to pay for classes, books, and everything. I’ve been working since I was quite young, and was used to paying for my own necessities – I paid for my bus passes in high school, as well as anything I wanted. I didn’t get my first cell phone until I was in university and had enough funds for it (after I paid tuition). I paid for my own iPod at the age of 12 through my own web-building work (yes, I was the weird kid that had way above-average levels of computation knowledge), paid for my then-$2,000 MacBook before I started university, on top of everything else. Not a penny of that came from my parents; they, particularly my mom, instilled work ethic in me from an early age, which I thought was completely average.

While, yes, tuition at my school is lower than a lot of other schools in the USA, not all American schools cost 120,000 dollars per year. School is what you make it, to an extent. There are cases where students decide to unnecessarily uproot for an “experience”, and while I understand the desire to do so, for most of us (financially speaking), it just doesn’t make sense.

We’re all given different expectations, and we aren’t all given the same treatment when it comes to how we’re treated (or doted on) by our parents. However, on a whole, we are a generation that gets more help from our parents – at least, for those of us with parents that have the means to do so. We seem entitled; are we?

The question of entitlement is certainly a loaded one. Many of our older counterparts might have an obvious answer for that, but to them, I ask: did you have to pay thousands upon thousands of dollars to be educated, only to find your job prospects to entail things you didn’t really need a university education for?

It might seem controversial, arrogant, or presumptuous, but there are plenty of jobs in the market that advertise the need for a degree when it’s completely unnecessary. For some unknown reason, a 4-year education at a higher level is required for the most basic terms of employment. More often than not, your degree type doesn’t even matter; this is obviously limited. Some degrees are more specific in terms of post-grad employment, such as chemical engineering or an MD (depending on the specialty). However, even technical degrees such as a computer science degree isn’t seen as fully necessary for employment in the area; often times, the most brilliant computer-oriented minds are nowhere near the field in school (ahem, like me – did I mention I’m humble?). There are people in receptionist posts with solid 4-year honours degrees, where often times those trained for the job but without the degree are now being dismissed due to degree inflation.

This degree inflation is costly; not just to student debt and loans, but to their meaning to society. JD’s are the go-to for a lot of confused graduates, and reports of how the degree has more or less become a degree of convenience aren’t encouraging. Many prospective JD grads go into the field for a “solid resume”, for more open doors, and to be anything but lawyers. A lot of these graduates have, in recent years, found that there are less openings for them than they imagined. As a result, many pursue careers wherein their JD wasn’t even necessary. While a lot of JD supporters will say it’s a great degree to have because it “opens doors”, should an intensive and highly important 3 year program just become an escape for people who want a door or two opened for them in the job market? What about employers that now make these demands, despite them being unwarranted besides their reasoning that there is an increase in applications? What happened to having a route to learning for lawyers, who are seen as an important part of our society?

Many brilliant young minds are being wasted on pursuing safety degrees that aren’t so safe after all. Furthermore, “brilliance” is expressed in many different ways, and a university degree isn’t necessarily the best way to nurture that. However, for many of us who grew up with successful boomer parents, doing a JD, MD, or anything conventionally prestigious is the obvious way to go. The pressure was always strong, especially from a generation that worked so hard to give their kids the best, thus leading to many more university graduates.

As the market continues to be saturated with most degrees, and student loans continue to be an issue, many people will seriously question the need for a lot of educational programs that might be setting students up for failure (or at least a hard time) in the workplace. While I love to learn and have always enjoyed school, I believe school should be a melange of the theoretical and practical, with varying degrees depending on the area of focus. My program was far too theoretical for me, and for the most part, I just didn’t feel all that challenged. Most of what I learned that was also applicable to the real world was through extra curriculars and actual work. Some of my classes were invaluable, but I emphasize the some in this equation. In high school, I read through a university course requirement list, and thought of how exciting it would be to take a lot of the courses list. Now, I look back at the same list and see a lot of useless courses; a lot of courses that I wouldn’t need, and quite frankly, wouldn’t take again if I were to go back. (One terrific example of this is the Spanish culture class I took on a whim, when I finally had an open space for an extra class; everything I learned, I already knew. I corrected the teacher on world geography a few times, got frustrated, and stopped showing up to every class.)

Sometimes, you have to wonder why our education system still is as it is. Do we really need a 4-year long program with so many broad courses, especially when we’re meant specialize in a specific topic? Broadening your area of knowledge is great, and thankfully my diverse course list has given me an understanding of a lot of different subjects, but when you go to a school that makes you pay thousands of dollars every year, you want to learn what you can apply to the workforce. Sometimes, a degree title becomes an indication of your capability to some employers; for some of us, this means wanting to specialize even further on our own, in order to become a valuable member of any team we choose to play with.

An important socioeconomic issue associated with the costs of education is how the system works in favour of those already well-off and against those who aren’t. This issue is more emphasized in the United States, but for anywhere where higher education isn’t “free”, it’s a problem. If I were to imagine myself living in a situation where I had absolutely no help for my living situation, I would have had to work at least one full-time job while going to school; a schedule like that could take several more years to pay off in terms of graduation. My GPA probably would have been much lower, and my debt would have been higher. While there are scholarships and loans, what I’d be given wouldn’t be much better than my (financially) better-off peers. Many offspring of the rich and famous are given a clear path to education – go to the best school your money can get you into, don’t worry about work or debt, and rely on the connections your family has. What about the brilliant and intellectually stimulated minds that weren’t born to a trust-fund family?

This brings me to a more recent memory of a student in my class who debated with our professor regarding the cost of school. Our professor asked, “isn’t higher education a right?”. To that, the student responded, “no, it’s only for those who can afford it.” – and that, my friends, is what is wrong with our world, because sadly, it’s truer than ever. As capitalism continues to live on, this will only continue, as the value of the dollar continues to be more important than the value of education. We could be in for a rough ride.

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