The following is a guest post from Emily Guy Birken. She is a freelance writer, occasional BFS guest poster, and regular contributor to PTMoney: Personal Finance. She lives in Lafayette, Indiana, with her mechanical engineer husband and toddler son. Her musings on life, parenting, and money can be found at The SAHMnambulist and Live Like a Mensch.
Our Views on College
For the nine years we have known each other, my husband and I have disagreed about the point of an undergraduate degree. I, who attended idyllic Kenyon College and double majored in English (with an emphasis in Creative Writing) and French Literature, feel that college is supposed to be a time of learning and growing without worrying about what comes next. My husband, who graduated from Rochester Institute of Technology with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering (and walked from the commencement stage into a great job with a major auto manufacturer), feels that you go to school so that you can get a job.
In effect, we represent the two ends of the philosophical spectrum of higher education. While I’d be taking the fate of my marriage in my hands if I were to try (again) to argue for the rightness of one of these positions (mine), I do think it’s important to examine the pros and cons of each. In my capacity as a personal finance writer, I have been known to advise people to save money on college by living at home, going to community college for the pre-requisites, or putting college off—so I think I ought to explain why I did none of those things. And why I have no regrets.
What I Lost By Being a Prototypical College Student
When I graduated from college in 2001, I carried over $18,000 in student loan debt, nearly $2,000 in credit card debt, and my beloved but impractical majors meant I had no job and no prospects when I received my degree. It took me nearly three months to find the job I would end up keeping off and on over the next four years—working as a bookseller for Barnes & Noble for $8.25/hour ($16,500/year).
I lived paycheck to paycheck for several years. While I was able to build up a $1000 emergency fund, pay off my credit card debt, and always pay my student loan each month, I also hit up the bank of Mom and Dad more often than I care to admit and I did not put a single cent away for retirement.
This was also a tough time for me psychologically. Many of my friends who had gone into different fields seemed to be making a mark, while I was simply improving my reading list.
What I Gained From the College Experience
On the other hand, even as I was jealous of friends who seemed closer to being “real grownups,” I never regretted my time at a small liberal arts school studying something without an obvious practical application. While I was always a pretty good student, being able to choose my majors helped me kick my studying into overdrive. I spent four years immersed in academic pursuits that I found fascinating, and I worked my rear end off because of it. That experience has taught me what kind of work ethic I can expect from myself—provided I’m interested in the topic. It also showed me the importance of doing work you care about, because then you never work a day in your life.
I also formed some incredible relationships during my college years, which would have been impossible had I been focused on a job or financial goal. When I got married at Kenyon in 2008, my favorite professor hosted our rehearsal dinner on his front lawn, and two of my bridesmaids were girls who lived down the hall from me Freshman year.
My time at Kenyon is inseparable from who I am as an adult. It helped to shape my intellect, personality, loves, relationships, and work ethic. I cannot imagine my life without my time at Kenyon.
The Bottom Line
I recognize that not everyone can have the incredible college experience that I had. I also know that I did pay a price during my twenties for my four years at college. I would do it all again in a heartbeat, for the same $20,000 price tag. But as I read about students graduating with $25,000, $60,000 and even $200,000 in student loan debt, I know that there is an upper limit to what a college experience is worth. I also know that I could not have made the decisions I did without the help and financial support of my family.
If you can afford the college experience, both during your four years at university and as you pay down student debt afterwards, then I certainly feel that personal growth is an important part of becoming an adult. But if money is tight, recognize that the education you receive does not have to be expensive to be worthwhile—and there will always be opportunities to learn more about yourself throughout your life. I was lucky, and I know it.
(Note to my husband: This still does not mean that you are right.)
Crystal’s Comments: I am torn. I know that my college experience was odd. I worked all the way through…heck, I spent my last semester taking 12 hours of classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays and working 3 part-time jobs Monday-Saturday for a total of 50-60 hours per week depending on the week. And I had multiple scholarships. But I still graduated with $8000 of debt to my parents that they forgave a few months after graduation. So, I definitely saw college as a way to get a job or I wouldn’t have attended.
BUT, I also met some amazing people, including my husband. And I laughed and cried in the dorms and the on-campus apartments as friendships formed and ended. So I completely think that college is a place to grow and form relationships too.
Overall, I am pro-college for whatever reason works for you.
How do you see college?