Wednesday, August 4, 2010

"[My education] was a serious mistake:" An Indentured Educated Citizen Laments Her Decision To Go To School

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 - Spekkio - recently discussed the "Cult of College" in a recent 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), and 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. As I've told many of my readers, I won't give up until the day I die. Hopefully that won't be for a very long time.

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, 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 cant 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 rake 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 a 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?


Nando said...

I am glad to hear that you will keep up the fight until you die. I think students should look at school as an economic decision. Perhaps, it is fine to study the humanities as an undergraduate. (I majored in sociology.) However, once we are talking about graduate/professional school, people should look at these SOLELY - at the least, PRIMARILY - as economic decisions.

Sure, you can expand your mind with a PhD in history or English. However, you could do that from your living room couch. We need to be practical at this point. People SHOULD ask themselves, "Realistically, what is the likelihood that I can get a job in this field?"

A former co-worker is not attending Syracuse University to earn a PhD in a HIGHLY-saturated field of study. Luckily, for her, she comes from a wealthy family that can foot the bill for her "intellectual pursuit." But, she is the exception. Most of us need to keep earning income during the years we are in college or post-grad studies.

In the end, I do not see much financial benefit from staying in the classroom for another 5-7 years, while accruing TONS of non-dischargeable student debt. As the letters you receive indicate, mountains of debt combined with anemic job prospects (or low-paying work) cause severe depression, anxiety, and feelings of worthlessness.

My wife has a Master's degree and 5 years' experience in her field - with a proven track record. She had stellar grades - she had a 3.9 GPA in her graduate program. Yet, after I finished law school, we moved. She has been unemployed for 9 of the last 12 months. She had a temp job, answering customer complaints over the phone. In her words, she feels like a "piece of sh*t."

We have lived frugally, but yet the new economy of low wages, job instability and high worker anxiety has taken a toll. It is best that new college students realize the truth of the situation now than after racking up $150K in non-dischargeable debt.

BL1Y said...

When it comes to an undergraduate degree, there really are only two things people should consider:

(1) A fancy-pants expensive degree your parents are paying out of pocket for and isn't financed by loans.

(2) A cheap state university where you're getting in-state tuition. I went to the University of Alabama and tuition was around $4k a year (before my partial scholarship).

Graduating with a degree in philosophy isn't so bad if you have $20k of debt. But, it's fucking retarded if you're going to have $100k of debt.

Knut said...

We have to keep telling the truth, not only for the purpose of improving the situation, but also for its therapeutic value. In a media environment characterized by myth-making and unemployed-bashing, people can forget that they're not alone.

Anonymous said...

To BL1Y-

Not all state universities are cheap, the ones in my state are around $20,000 a year and aren't that great.

Shan said...

I have an English degree and I have graduated summa cum laude in May. I am concerned about the impending student loan crisis because jobs are scarce. I owe less than $20,000 in loans, but I fear that I won't have a job by the time all they come due and I will not be able to meet my financial obligations. I know that for many of you 20k is a negligible number when some of you owe nearly 100k or more for an education.

I am of the mindset that any amount of debt is bad especially in this economy. I can't help but wonder if the government will ever act on the student loan bubble that is about to burst because we are obviously headed into another double dip recession. How many more people will default before Congress actually does something?

Anonymous said...

to address Ms Q.
The very first thing I have to say to this incredibly brave victimized citizen is that You have nothing to be ashamed of. You did everything right and within your means to acquire an education. Your options were limited and you reached out for what you thought were grants/loans created by entities and offered through schools and Fafsa sites to seduce your dream and you thought you could have a shot at a stable life. You took the bate, you wanted to and still want to be a productive citizen, your only problem is that those who were so generous and giving when you were young and fresh are now sharks circling you.
Ms Q
do this for your self and others, dont let your misery debt consume you and become you. I know its easier said than done but if you want to have some positive wonderful things happen in you life even while this "debt" is still there you can. They cant take away your generous and positive outlooks and you can get all of that back by reaching out to others as you have begun by this testimony. Reach out by assisting in a food bank just serving meals or a neighbor who needs help. Dont expect anything in return just do things that make you feel good about being a human not a debtor.
I truly believe in you, your purpose and felt your pain but I have heard from someone greater than you or I that you are going to be just fine.

Cryn Johannsen said...

@Anonymous Aug. 6, 2010 - your remarks are very sympathetic, and I'm glad you made them. Ms. Q, I imagine, will be greatly appreciative.

Anonymous said...

Plenty of us 'did everything right' and the most lucky among us have a part time job with zero benefits so that we are not on the street. Cover up? Try to find the suicide rates in the US for 2008 & 2009 (censored). The economy is much worse than people know. There won't be any jobs like we were promised.

DobraDavid said...

If this person had enlisted, she would not have ANY college debt. If she's under 30, she can still do so. She is where she is because of her life decisions. Her future still depends on the decsions/actions she makes.

Anonymous said...


I actually think that we should re-institute the draft (but allow the option for military service, AmericCorps, or the Peace Corps, with differing levels of compensation depending on the type of service), but I don't know if you've really thought through the implications of what you're saying. Do you realize how expensive it would be for the US government (i.e., taxpayer) if everyone who couldn't afford an education enlisted? A conservative estimate for feeding, housing, training, and paying a US soldier is $20k-$40k per year, and then there's the benefits from the GI Bill, which add considerably to that cost. But we can house students in dorms and feed them on meal plans, and with reasonable tuition rates, $20k/year would be an upper end of the cost spectrum (I'm not estimating the real cost, because we already fund a good chunk of education through taxes; this estimate is based on the additional cost that is now borne by students). At this time of public fiscal instability, you think the solution is for the government to shell out as much as 2 to 3 times per person so we can stock the military with human resources that are probably outmoded in today's world (conventional warfare as we knew it for a few hundred years is likely over, the days of throwing bodies into the breach gone)?

Now again, I do favor some kind of required service, but it's not going to be cheap and we're going to have to take a hard look at the budget to make it affordable. I obviously think it's worth it, but it's also as obvious that there's no political interest in this plan, nor is it clear that the public would support it. So for the time being, I'd prefer we figure out how to fund education better, keep the costs down, and not push them on to those who seek to make themselves, their communities, and their country a better place. Military service to pay for education is not the affordable solution at this time.

Anonymous said...


There's plenty of hurdles just to enlist. In this shitty economy, they can be picky on the matter of your physical examination, any legal/criminal problems, your background check, and DEBT STATUS can blow your chances for the appropriate security clearance, etc. etc.

It's not that simple a matter. Plenty of pitfalls.

Anonymous said...

The educational system is out of control with it's cost. I feel for the Ms. Q. Most of us fell for the faked out American dream. It doesn't exist and maybe never did. It is just another way for an institution to rape the students.

I just finished a PhD and feel raped because the system kept me in the dissertation process for years over stuff like "removing the space between the period and the number in a chart" or revising the statistical methodology to end up with the first choice at the end. How about losing ones papers for several months and then instituting major changes that affected portions of the dissertation.

All in all , the dissertation process is a big academic rapist that only teaches a student how to be frustrated. This, the highest degree of our society is a reflection of the use of education to rape out society.


EvrenSeven said...

zero sympathy for our protagonist. Young and stupid is not an excuse for the masters in Sociology. WTF is a masters degree in sociology anyway?

Cryn Johannsen said...

EvrenSeven - thanks for your callousness. If only we were all like you: unsympathetic, judgmental, crude. The world would be a far better place, wouldn't it? Damn dreamers and people who point out the injustices of systems. To hell with 'em, right? Thanks again for such an illuminating remark. You've added so much depth to this conversation.

Anonymous said...

Um, the people with the bachelors of arts in art history or the masters of science in sociology have much lower default rates than those with certificates in ostensibly more "practical" fields such as cosmotology, truck driving, medical assistant and so on. The field studied really has little to do with someone's success, whether financially or otherwise. In fact, the strong argument has been made, successfully IMHO, that a rigorous program in the humanities or liberal arts teaches the students how to think -- a skill that serves them well as they go out to make a living. Relatively few people stay in the same career for their whole lives.

Klaire said...

@EvrenSeven Good thing you don't understand what sociology is, narrow-minded judgmental people such as yourself have no business in the liberal arts. I'm guessing this woman signed many of these loans at 18, who at 18 really has the understanding necessary to comprehend complex financial documents more mind-boggling than a credit card brochure (ever try to understand ALL of that stuff) at such a young age. And who could have possibly have predicted that after completing her degrees the economy would collapse and the job market scarce. Kudos to people who try to make better through education, too bad education and the lending institutions screw us all!

Klaire said...

student loan debt affects your ability to enlist in the military.

Klaire said...

B11Y-Did you even consider the fact that a 20-30k loan can balloon to close to 100k with interest? Check out Sallie Mae it happens all the time! There are a lot of good jobs for people with degrees in social science, we need people who can think critically. Did you know that research is a big part of the sociology curriculum, especially at the Master's level. Future social research may be halted without bright minded young adults pursuing this field. A lot of jobs in this field are service and or government type jobs which were effected by the collapse of the economy. How dare you judge somebody by their choice of degree and make assumptions!