I don’t want to write about illness or disability right now. Instead I want to write about something else: the fact that the world has rapidly changed in my lifetime and it seems to be accelerating very quickly in the past few years.
The most specific way in which it has changed in the past few years: college is becoming more out of reach for anyone but the wealthy and the most motivated high achievers.
My high school prom date was one of those highly motivated high achievers. Raised by a single mom, he didn’t come from money at all. So he worked three jobs in high school, saving money and still maintaining excellent grades. It was no surprise that he got into a good college, could afford to take internships (because he had saved his money), and went on to do exactly what he set out to do for a career. He’s brilliant and his life continues to be an amazing success, with achievements like going back to grad school at Harvard, working for the ACLU, then running for City Council in San Francisco.
He would still be able to become a success today. He is the very definition of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.
But for the rest of us out there, it’s gotten a lot harder to make it unless we come from wealth. It used to be that you could make it if you were moderately ambitious. You could take out student loans (which were closer to the cost of a car than a house), get a good job and pretty easily pay off those loans. No bootstraps required.
But now loans cost a lot more and there’s less guarantee that you’ll get hired in your field (or any field) because so many people have degrees. Even fields that are in demand are always changing. Even careers that are considered safe bets, like nursing or teaching, are getting harder to break into with no experience.
That varies a lot by region, too. It’s still fairly easy to get a nursing job here, especially if you work in the hospital as a patient care tech or nurse aide while you’re in school. But in the rest of the country, including where I’m from, nursing jobs require experience and it’s hard to get. The best nursing grads get in part-time at the hospital and wait for a full-time position to come along, which may take years. The rest work in assisted living homes, which is not transferable experience accepted by hospitals.
Even when my husband went back to school, his degree field (accounting) was then listed as one of the most in-demand fields. But as a working adult supporting a family, he couldn’t afford to do the internships that would get him a job in that field. So he has never worked in accounting, though simply having a degree does give him an edge for jobs that say a degree is preferred or required.
This may step on some toes because I never know who’s reading, but even being able to take your kids on campus tours (especially out of state) requires a higher than average household income.
I have friends who are paying for their kids to attend expensive private universities – like more than $50,000 a year – and the kids are majoring in art and gender studies. I know that makes me sound like a Trump supporter and I’m not. I’m not ridiculing those degree fields and think they’re still valuable to learn. But as someone with a sociology degree, I have to say that degrees in interesting fields that aren’t in high demand are generally not good investments.
I mean, good on them that they can afford that, but the odds that the kids will ever work in their field are slim to none. They might be able to use their parents’ connections to at least get a good job doing something unrelated.
But without that social capital and family ability to pay for their kids’ college education, the rest of us and our kids are falling further behind. And I don’t think this is an unintentional thing at all. The nameless Powers That Be who have driven up the cost of college far beyond any reasonable level have changed the playing field. And I believe that was quite intentional.
Having known a lot of moms online with kids the same age as mine, it’s interesting to see the way the topic of college is addressed. Namely, the parents who can afford to send their kids to college are posting all the time about the exciting adventures of college visits and moving kids into college and going to visit their kids in different states once they go to college.
There are a lot of people with kids in the same age group who don’t say a whole lot about what our kids are up to and I don’t think that’s unintentional, either. College is still seen as the “right” path that all our kids should choose. Saying that your kid isn’t in college is almost embarrassing to admit. Even saying that your kid is at community college or going to the commuter school close to home is not brag-worthy.
I don’t know if any of my kids are going to college. But I’m not pushing them into it because I don’t believe it’s as universally required as people seem to think.
Yes, a degree is still an expected entry point in many fields and in many parts of society where financial success is eventually assured. You just have to know the right people, have gotten a head start from your parents so that you’re not shackled by a mortgage-sized debt at 22, and not screw up too badly.
But for the rest of us, whose kids would have to finance their own college education because we can’t afford it, college has a big asterisk. Are you sure about what you want to do and is there a demand for it? Then college can be worth the risk. But if you’re not sure about what you want to do and don’t have your parents’ social capital to rely on to help you get jobs, then maybe it’s better not to take on the debt for college. Especially not for degree fields that aren’t directly correlated to a specific job.
The high schools are really pressuring kids about college (which I know because I have one who’s a sophomore this fall and one who’s a senior) but a lot of the statistics they use aren’t quite accurate. Like they have posters up in school saying the lifetime difference in earnings between a high school graduate and a bachelors degree is $1 million dollars. And that particular statement is pretty inaccurate, unless they’re averaging Mark Zuckerberg’s earnings in with all the social workers.
People like to say that the bachelors degree is the new high school diploma and it’s not. Not really. It doesn’t mean that now you have to have a degree to get a job (although there are many jobs that say a degree is required, even if the work itself doesn’t require it.) What is does mean is that a bachelors degree doesn’t set you apart from other candidates the way it used to.
Is there a way to make college work and be a good investment that leads to a good career? Sure. Absolutely. But pushing every kid to take on hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt (or even tens of thousands) is irresponsible, especially when doing so to kids while telling them they’ll never get a good job otherwise.
The game has already changed. The students who can come through college without substantial debt, particularly those whose parents have good connections, will be just fine. But for the kids of the working class, particularly those who don’t have career goals, I would even go so far as to say the student loans are a trap.
It’s still a meme in society that smart kids must go to college. My kids are very bright and they hear a lot at school about college, assuming they will be going. But I can tell you that being smart isn’t enough. You also need social skills, family social capital, a safety net in the form of parents who can catch you if you fall.
It’s not impossible for working-class kids to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and scale that wall over into the upper-middle-class. But it’s harder than it’s ever been in my lifetime and I think that’s only going to continue to become so. I’ve told my kids what they can achieve if they work hard enough for it. They’ve met my former prom date on numerous occasions and they know the details of his rags-to-riches story and how he achieved it.
But if they don’t feel that motivated (which so far they don’t seem to), I think they’re smarter if they skip the student loan debt. I think that in the long run, not having the debt is going to be more important than having the degree unless they’re choosing a field that’s not likely to be outsourced or oversaturated.
The wealthier parents help their kids learn how to play the game. I’m helping my kids learn how to play the game, too. The only difference is that the game is different for the wealthy and for the working-class.