Disclaimer: It is important to you know I live in the United States of America. The idea behind this particular “My Opinion Monday” article is centered on my experiences and knowledge as an American. Chances are that this does not apply to other countries in the world that have very different educational structures. Again, be reminded, this is called “My Opinion Monday” for a reason – at its core this is an opinion article.
Author Note: If you enjoyed my last MOM article (Money Can Buy Happiness and Here’s Why) then you should check out Shrey’s Finance Blog Here!
Starting at a very young age, children are conditioned and nurtured to believe that success comes in the form of a college degree. They fail to tell us the actual cost of attending college, though. Sure, they talk about student loans and interest rates. Sure, they talk about room and board costs, books, and meal plans. Even further, they talk also about grants and scholarships – ways to lessen the burden of student loans. Things that they do not talk about are how long you’ll be paying those loans back, how some fields don’t require a college degree, and how successful people can be if they don’t choose to go to college. They also never bother telling you that most people never even finish their degree.
I went to college. I went to a two-year private business trade school. I got a Bachelor’s Degree in Business with a Paralegal Studies major. During high school I was always told that a Bachelor’s Degree would make me more valuable. I was told that it would make me more money. All of these fantasies of having a financially secure future filled into my head and I was so sure that my decision to incur student loans was worthwhile because I would have the income to support it. Unfortunately, I found very quickly that I was wrong.
My annual income as a Paralegal/Office Manager was $22,800. Research and statistics suggested that I should be making easily twice that, and that even in a small law firm I should have been making 1.5x that figure. Why should I have thought anything else was possible when all my educators suggested that I would be making better money? The first couple of years I wasn’t bothered because I knew I was young, and I thought the number would eventually go up. Yet after four years in the same firm I found that the pay increases only made a miniscule monthly difference in my bring home wages. My student loan debts total $23,000 – my payments when my six-month grace period was up – an estimated at $250 per month.
Let’s consider a few more stories I am familiar with so that you know that this isn’t just a personal bone to pick. My husband was attending college when we met. It was a community college and he was covering all of it out of pocket with some help from his folks. He estimates that approximately $7,000 – $9,000 had been spent on the two years that he completed before deciding to drop out. That should have been an Associate’s Degree, based on what we are told in high school. An Associate’s Degree takes two years, a Bachelor’s Degree takes four years, a Master’s Degree takes six years, and any Professional Doctorate takes eight or more years; that is what we are led to believe our entire school careers. My husband should have had at least an Associate’s degree but he didn’t – and it wasn’t even his fault. Thankfully, he had no loans to worry about this time.
Flash forward three years and my husband decides to go back to college, an online university that promises him a degree in two years – a Bachelor’s Degree no less. It is a trade school so the degree completion is reasonably accurate. Unfortunately, the last semester he was attending his financial advisor got fired and none of his financial aid documents were turned in on time. As a result he was not allowed to attend for the semester unless he paid the full tuition of $15,000. As it turns out, he got billed for it anyway because his withdrawal never reached the right department because yet another person got fired. So now he owes the $15,000 semester tuition and he has $25,000 in student loans. Now he’s attended college twice and has been unable to finish either of his intended degrees.
Here are a few more quick real life experiences, since that was a story about my husband. Doesn’t really shift the scales away from biased does it? I know two individuals who were previously attending college. One of them was aiming to be in the medical field. After three years attending college there is now a possibility that this person will not return to attend nursing school. It is worth noting that this individual is already employed at a decent paying job in the medical field with which he or she is happy. Unfortunately, this individual has $35,000 in student loans – some of which has to do with additional withdrawals. From experience and acquired knowledge, however, many advisors do not warn against withdrawing funds in excess of the student loans so much as they warn that the debt accrues interest in the same fashion.
Another person I know started college unsure about what field to he or she was interested in pursuing. Three different majors and three years later, he or she has no degree and no desire to return for one. Now there is $18,000 in debt total waiting to be repaid even though there is nothing to show for the time wasted, except for a job application with a marked box: “some college.” A wonderful lady with whom I am acquainted attended a four year college for the same degree I did (Paralegal) during which time she had single year of studies near the end of her Bachelor’s degree cost $18,000 by itself! Times that by four – yeah, that number makes us all want to cry. I could go on and on about all the people I have known that have found college expenses aren’t quite everything we are told, but that would require an entire book.
Truth about college is – it’s not for everyone. Not just because some people don’t want to go, or don’t have the right personalities to attend, but because financially it isn’t always the best option. I highly advise checking out a website – O*NET – when researching what is required for a certain job or field. O*Net is a wonderful website I was introduced to in the last months of my college career. It really helped me better understand what the real job market looks like in terms of education requirements, job availability, employment trends, and realistic expected income. You should definitely check it out before making big financial decisions about college and student loans.
Anyway, I should get to my point before you lose interest in this article!
College is such an intricate life decision that requires more than just one angle of analysis. It would seem to me that the most important introduction to the matter is by discussing graduation statistics. Earlier this year, CNN Money published an article by Tamy Luhby about the graduation average for students attending college with the intent to finish a Bachelor’s Degree. Studies are for students going to college in 2003, with graduation projections for 2007 and stretching as far as 2011, showed less than a 50% completion rate (Luhby). In fact, only approximately 42% of the people who started college in 2003 completed his or her degree (Luhby). Even more frightening than that statistic is that the studies reviewed people who finished these Bachelor’s degrees in four to eight years (Luhby). Remember in high school when you were told that a Bachelor’s degree takes four years? Yeah, that is basically a lie.
Other articles I have found talk about the “four year myth.” TIME Business addresses that about 60% of people who graduate with a Bachelor’s degree end up completing their degrees in six years (Luckerson). By itself, something taking longer probably won’t bring about inner crisis. Issues begin arising when something taking longer than anticipated makes you realize that the cost of your education was based on it being completed in four years, and only four years. At the time you register as a student for college you are given estimated figures – for a four-year degree! Additional expenses after the four-year experience are not taken into consideration by financial advisors or by students incurring the debt when beginning a college career. Students are not properly informed during high school about the full spectrum of options and pitfalls of attending college unprepared; and as such, thousands upon thousands of people go to post-secondary institutions thinking that the figures similar to those in this graph are accurate. Based on conversations I’ve had with everyone I know that’s ever been to or completed college – those figures are just shy of delusional and could lead someone into making a decision that results in lifelong financial strife.
Both articles by TIME and CNN list reasons for an incomplete college degree. Each seems to agree that it really is a culmination of different situations. First and foremost, the unexpected costs can deter someone from furthering his or her education (TIME, CNN). Other reasons that are being cited are life emergencies, financial struggles (beyond school expenses), and not attending full time (TIME, CNN). One thing that I was particularly interested in was the fact that CNN points out that 42% is the graduation rate of those completing their intended degree, but does highlight how that number increases when considering those who finished with field certifications or an Associate’s degree – going all the way to 62% once inclusive. Of course, that means that 20% of people paid for more than they ended up receiving. Not that I intend to belittle those people, but how much better off are those individuals? Surmounting student loan debt may turn what was a good choice by him or her into feelings of regret since there are still monthly payments on the ledger for a degree that wasn’t obtained.
Backpedaling just slightly, what about the benefits of obtaining a degree? Naturally, it can/does make you more valuable in the job market. In my opinion, that is all relative to the field and position an individual is seeking. More important than the value as a worker, though, is cost of these time differences. Costs associated with a degree being dragged out for one or two additional years is estimated anywhere between $16,000 and $23,000. Yes, that is added onto the initial cost just to earn the degree (Lewin). Some of the reasons provided for these costs, and probably a contributing factor in the extension of degree obtainment, are transferring schools and programs (Lewin). For example, most people don’t realize that there are three different accreditation systems in which colleges and universities are approved. In fact, most traditional four-year colleges have one that is most commonly used throughout the country. Two-year colleges use an accelerated program to get students graduating faster and therefore operate on a second type of system focused on accelerated learning. As for community colleges there’s a third accreditation system that usually acts as a liaison between the traditional and the accelerated schools. As the result, credits are lost, degrees ignored, or only portions of completed courses being accepted. Most colleges don’t have the resources to best assist students in transferring in a way that saves them from essentially starting from scratch (Lewin).
Now, I’m not going to deny that people who have college degrees make more money, but have you ever heard a saying popularized by rap: Mo’e money, mo’e problems. It is entirely true, not only from my experience by from the various attorneys that I worked under during my career as a Paralegal. Generally speaking, people don’t consider the cost of having a degree and a position the corresponding field. Oftentimes it means buying business attire (or job specific uniforms), having money for business/work lunches, money for certifications and continuing education, membership fees for professional organizations, and additional travel expenses not covered by employers. Don’t forget about your regular cost-of-living bills and student loans, which are probably being paid on either a 15-year or 30-year plan. [Just in case you didn’t know, most homes are on a 30-year or 33-year pay off schedule, so your student loan payments can operate as second mortgage in your life.]
Now, there are options for repayment based on income or current earnings, each of which have to be updated anywhere from every ninety days to once a year. Even if you get into an income repayment program, you could still wind up paying a ton of money each month that you can’t bare to lose after you consider all of your other bills. Oh, and don’t forget about the interest on those loans. Income repayment plans help you now but you will be paying for a much longer period of time.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics and National Center of Education Statistics each have graphs showing how much money per week and per year people with different levels of education make. It is pretty clear that higher degrees yield higher incomes. High school dropouts average $375-$425 per week (BLS), or approximately $20,000-$25,000 annually (NCES); in contrast, individuals with a Master’s degree or higher make between $1000-1600 per week (BLS), or $60,000-$70,000 annually (NCES). Costs and benefits of college aren’t determined just by the income that someone will have after-the-fact, though. Jobs that pay that high often come with costs that aren’t monetary – mandatory overtime, on-call hours, pro bono services, controlled or limited vacation options, media exposure, and much more.
At the end of the day, an illusion surrounds the idea of attending college and the benefits that if can provide someone financially. There are tons of secure jobs on the market that don’t require individuals to have any college education. Below are some jobs that I know of that can appeal to high school graduates that don’t require college educations…
- Paralegal, Legal Assistant (High School Graduate, Relevant Experience Preferred, College Degree is Bonus)
- Reception, Office Administration (High School Graduate, Relevant Experience Preferred, College Degree is Bonus)
- Retail, Retail Manager (Legal Adult, Relevant Experience Preferred)
- Sales, Real Estate (Legal Adult, High School Graduate, Some Certifications/Licenses)
- Manual Labor, Factory, Mechanic, Farming (Legal Adult, Some Certifications)
- Field Cable Technician, Field Cable Manager (Driver’s license, Some Certifications, High School Graduate)
- Entry Level Nursing (Legal Adult, High School Graduate, Certifications Required, College Degree Ideal)
- Electrician, Carpenter, Plumber, Welder (Legal Adult, High School Graduate, Appropriate Training Program Completion)
- Bank Teller (High School Graduate)
- Server, Restaurant Manager, Restaurant Owner (Relevant Experience Preferred)
- Painting, Landscaping, Personal Assistant (References Preferred, Relevant Experienced Preferred)
- Writing, Blogging (None, Experience Ideal, College Degree Ideal, Portfolio Preferred)
- Delivery, Trucking (Driver’s License, Additional Licenses, Certifications)
- Postal Service (High School Graduate)
- Artist, Media, Digital Design (None, Experience Ideal, College Degree Ideal, Portfolio Preferred)
- Police Officer (Legal Adult, Background Checks, Police Academy, High School Graduate)
- Army (Legal Adult, Certain Background Checks, Training Camp)
- Entrepreneur (Legal Adult, Relevant Experience Preferred)
The delightful thing about the above careers is that there is upward mobility for most of them. Just in case someone doesn’t know what that means – it is the opportunity to obtain higher paying positions within the company. It is a fancy way to say that there’s “room to grow” within the position and field. With these jobs it is very unlikely any of these jobs are going to bring in six-figure incomes, but a lot of them offer livable wages. Remember that the key word is “most,” as some of those jobs don’t even make minimum wage or don’t even pay until a product is provided or a service completed. However, most of these jobs can give someone a manageable life financially without requiring a college education.
Sometimes the best choice for a career is gaining field experience, or just plain being passionate about the work. That is why I have this author blog that makes me zero dollars per week. I am passionate about writing and I am passionate about sharing my opinions that could help other people see things differently. The impact your financial decisions have on your bury deep, and can cause depression and anxiety (as I’ve previously discussed here). Please make sure that when you consider attending college after high school, or even possibly returning to college later in life, that you are making a decision that won’t make you worse off.
Because *gasp* – college might not be right for you.
“Fast Facts: Income of Young Adults.” National Center for Education Statistics. National Center for Education Statistics, n.d. Web. 3 Aug. 2015.
Lewin, Tamar. “Most College Students Don’t Earn a Degree in 4 Years, Study Finds.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 Dec. 2014. Web. 03 Aug. 2015.
Luckerson, Victor. “The Myth of the Four-Year College Degree.” TIME Business. TIME, 13 Jan. 2010. Web. 3 Aug. 2015.
Luhby, Tami. “More than Half of Middle-class Kids Fail to Earn Bachelor’s Degrees.” CNNMoney. Cable News Network, 25 Mar. 2015. Web. 03 Aug. 2015.
“Median Weekly Earnings by Educational Attainment in 2014 : The Economics Daily: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, n.d. Web. 03 Aug. 2015.