So, You Want to Go to College?

...So you can work for free and have a life of debt?

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared over at Lehigh Valley Vanguard, a new progressive visual and literary publication based out of Easton, PA. Marlana Eck is the founder and Editor of the Lehigh Valley Vanguard. Be sure to check out their full site and give them some love. The Lehigh Valley Vanguard is sponsored by Raging Chicken Press. 

“Thank God, I never was sent to school
To be Flog’d into following the Style of a Fool.”

—William Blake

 This article may seem strange coming from someone who has almost two Master’s degrees and has worked in higher education for most of her professional career (as it stands now). I should be a walking endorsement for colleges. Instead, I’d like to offer my experiences as a cautionary tale.

As you may know from the article “So Long and Thanks for All the Dry Erase Markers,” I have seen the innards of colleges and universities and refuse to ignore the injustices.

Now I am ready to explore how defective the conditions for students have become.

Strike Debt LogoMy initial angle was similar to the organization Strike Debt. I love the work they are doing to bring attention to the feelings of indentured servitude that debt, specifically student debt, causes.

I read someone’s post on social media that changed my approach.

This person posted a picture of someone holding up a sign that said “Life should not be a debt sentence.” I wholeheartedly agree. Accompanying the photo was the following commentary:

This is so fucked. You people are stupid. If you didn’t want debt then guess what? DON’T GO TO COLLEGE! I went to college and I paid on my loans because I knew that I was going to owe money. If you don’t want to owe money then JUST DON’T GO! Stop complaining and stay away from college if you don’t want to owe!

This reminds me of petty high school slut shaming. I can almost picture this person saying to a beautiful high school girl “You are so fucked. If you would just stop being so beautiful people wouldn’t like you so much and wouldn’t start spreading rumors about your sexuality. Go home in a closet and DON’T GO OUTSIDE! You don’t want people to talk about how you get glances from men then don’t leave the house. Simple. And stop dressing so nice.”

Regardless, their post still had me thinking that, in part, what they said does hold weight as a potential solution to a generational crisis. It is too late for me to follow this advice, but the grains of truth contained within this statement should be examined.

People weren’t always so eager to attend college. College represented a certain type of person. As time went on, people started to decide that they wanted to go to college and learn whatever the people in college were learning because those people were having great personal and financial success after they were finished. Colleges started to realize that being high minded about letting people into college, who historically did “not belong” there was quite profitable. Before everyone wanted to go to college, there were micro entrepreneurs and apprentices. People had stake in their family’s business legacy whether that was farming or another craft of trade.

Being “college ready” (meaning you are ready for college level courses with no remediation) has a lot to do with whether or not your parents went to college and the background you come from. The same goes for being post-college ready. Your pre-college affluence and family has a lot to do with your initial and continued success.

When people go to college, many times they are taking for granted that, historically, college was for people who came from some sort of privilege. With privilege you have the promise of capital no matter what: you will work the family business and be a bit more assured that you have the connections through family ties to secure lucrative work after college.

People demanded to go to college because they saw the lifestyles that people who went to college were privileged with. They saw college as the precursor to these privileges. This was a false positive.

Many people who were going to college before the “you have to go to college” boom would have been set without college. College was just a finishing school. People saw college as the doorway to a good vocation, so vocational promises it made.

Some people with means got together and they said, “what a novel idea! Let’s get the working class people to go to college so they pay us money!” And that’s when the for-profit institutions started springing up all over the country.

Michael Price from The Huffington Post does a great job at describing this:

The college system went on a massive PR blitz to propagandize an entire generation into believing that college would provide high-level job opportunities, and it did. Universities first started by infiltrating high schools and paying off school districts to post their posters of two people side-by-side. One of which was a pudgy blue-collar worker next to a slim and trim guy in a business suit. You’d often see taglines, such as, ‘Which guy do you want to be?’…not only did they have posters blanketing high schools showing kids what a loser they would be if they didn’t go to college. They also had mom and dad at home telling them the same thing.

Unless you go to the Ivies, you are a part of the for-profit tradition. And even if you do go to the Ivies, you are a part of a class dividing tradition.

In the privileged model, college makes sense. You are having your last little freedom before the life that is set up for you comes to pass. College, even to many people who did not indulge in the party lifestyle while attending, is still that break from deciding how they fit into the world. In the working class situation, college is a waste of money and precious youth.

People argue “BUT I LOVE TO LEARN!” Well, that’s fine. So do I. But what about all the ways you can learn on your own? What about libraries? What about the internet?

Education Not Debt Sentence
Photo Credit: PolicyMic

When students graduate, they are now trained to be employees and look for opportunities related to that. The time they have spent in “freedom” was contributing to future bondage if they did not come from a position of capital. They now are in the negatives in their finances from loans and are faced with limited options as far as succeeding. They are faced with only one real option which is to find whatever they can to simply pay down school loans, left with little to do important things like start a business or generally spending their younger years building the future they want. College is no longer a part of that future building.

The people who went to college were at least guaranteed to hold an employee position. Now that’s not a definite. You will not be secure as an employee. When the financial crashes of 2008 happened, the people in charge used it as an excuse to get rid of those they felt were disposable and unnecessary.

Your options are to take temp jobs or low paying jobs to pay these bills (for many, the bills accrued in college since it is now the largest form of debt) when you thought college was what would set you up to get out of that cycle of just “getting by.” You will in many ways be much worse off if you decide on college. And you will not get to experience what you could have been without it. College is a way to fit you into a mold.

Even Forbes writer George Leef says

If a college degree were a regulated investment opportunity, it would have to bear the standard warning that past performance is no guarantee of future performance. The future won’t be similar to the past for many college graduates and telling young people that college will be a good investment is careless and irresponsible.

He also points out the misconception that people have that they will be rewarded just for credentials.

Employees are rewarded for capabilities, not credentials. You will need to show what it is you can do.

One of the fields I went into after graduation was English as a Second Language. Despite my certification in TESOL and my M.Ed., I was placed far behind the people in the field who traveled or immigrated and spoke several languages (I can read and speak some French and Spanish, poorly). Traveling was something I could have done with all of the money I spent on my education. I could have taught English classes abroad and gotten paid to pick up on the language and customs in another country. Instead, I got a Master’s degree.

“Oh, you work in ESL? What other languages do you speak?”


*awkward silence*

Nobody gives a shit that you took a “cutting edge” new course called “Second Language Acquisition.” They just don’t.

The culture of college campuses across the country is to just push students through. This is the new model of success perpetrated by No Child Left Behind. This feeling of successful accomplishment is a façade, an illusion that is quickly destroyed after graduates go forth to participate in the “job market.” Job market implies employee, and in this age, being an employee is a tough slog.

throw-up-in-my-mouthWhen someone says “this is a great resume builder” it makes me vomit a bit. When something is a great resume builder, that’s a cue for you to run home and hide under your covers. Ever find it curious that all of the internships you get in college are either unpaid or you pay for them yourself? The people offering them have gotten lots of free labor off of the term “resume building.” Only 30 years ago, many internships were still paid internships. College culture has changed that. Unpaid internships are for people with class luxuries.

But by all means, work for free or pay to work even if you can’t afford it.

For some, including myself, there is the attainment of cultural capital that is so alluring. People from working class families can finally say “I did it, I’m in your world—you can’t keep me out anymore because I know the same things you know.” Personally, it was an ancestral pull that made me keep going, knowing that I was (as this phrase becomes the most overused and annoying phrase in higher ed) a “first generation college graduate.” But even more than that, for me it was a way to avenge my poorly treated, union membered, barely formally schooled grandparents. This was not what I found when I exited college or graduate school.

I found that, in a lot of ways (debt, unemployment, default), the joke was on me.

In many industries, there are only part time and temporary positions available. Since the Affordable Health Care Act, people have been given positions that fail to provide even part time status. Once the health care act was passed, employers were expected to provide health care to part time employees. The solution there was to cut hours so that people were barely part time. It worked, but at the expense of a living wage. These workers what I guess we could call “super part timers.” They work more than one part time job so they can afford to pay bills.

College teaches you that you are only as good as people judge you to be from a superficial document (your resume). This is a passive place for millions of college graduates to be.

The best thing you can be in our world now is an entrepreneur. No workplace is going to support you after you’ve worked for them for most of your life. People are much more shameless now when it comes to not caring about someone who was loyal to their company. We have to look out for ourselves. There are no real retirement plans that are going to support you after you “retire.” Most retirees work a part time job until they can’t anymore and it will only get harder for those unwilling to give up the fervent imaginings of a world where you work one job forever and then retire into bliss.

I ran into someone who read my article about adjuncting the other day. He knew me for many years and ended up working at the same place as me when I was an adjunct. This was someone who once maintained a cordial, even mentoring relationship with me. He is a supervisor in a STEM department, retired from the U.S. Government. He is in charge of hiring adjuncts in his department, so he knows the price of being a temp by proxy.

He must have heard the conditions of me leaving and I’m not sure what he was hoping for when he asked me “what are you up to now?”  By the way he asked, it seemed like he wanted me to say “absolutely nothing. I’m actually living in squalor. I look back with great regret on the professional decisions I’ve made. In fact, all I do every day is sit in my bed and cry.” He instead learned that I was running my own art business, doing community organizing, starting a magazine, tutoring, consulting, and working a part time job I believe in (at a health food store).

As our conversation went on, I just said what I needed to say to end the conversation: “with what we are teaching students and the conditions which we are teaching them in, that doesn’t seem very humane.” That was all it took for him to dismiss me like he was about to come to blows with me if I didn’t stop talking. Maybe my delivery of that workplace analysis was a little too “bleeding heart,” but I don’t care.

His generation will retire into security.

I don’t regret any of the decisions I’ve made which have deviated from the standard idea of the American Dream.

Thinking back, I always thought I was taking some sort of moral high ground by going to college. A female relative of mine skipped college and became a well-known local bartender and model. Though her constant mentions of vacations and job security were enticing, I thought that the best thing I could do was use my mind. The exploitation of my mind has made the experience more like a moral and mental prostitution that makes being a bartender seem like it would have been a better choice (turns out it wasn’t; I briefly tried it, I was a terrible bartender because I hate flirting and I hate bars).

A handful of people I grew up with decided not to go to college. Many of them are successful. They started businesses and weren’t afraid to make mistakes like me. They didn’t make, what seemed like, the “safe” choice.

What I am trying to get at is: it has been programmed in us forever that the real accomplishment will come after we are awarded by fitting into this box that higher education has prepared for us. That is completely off the mark.

We needn’t feel a sense of accomplishment just from being able to take orders for four years of our lives, conditioning us to take more orders for more years of our lives.


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