When I look back on the progression of myself as a writer and academic, I can honestly say I didn’t choose any of this, which makes it a lot easier to justify the semester after semester of courses and the years of nomadic moving tendencies and the student loans and the general career hang-ups and–IT WASN’T MY FAULT I DIDN’T HAVE A CHOICE I SWEAR!
By that I mean that I didn’t choose to be a writer. I didn’t choose to dedicate myself to the art and education of the craft.
Writing chose me.
I’d be nothing without it. My daily confidence and ambition are deeply rooted in the written word and the academically-centered life choices that it sparked in me.
Which is what makes it so difficult for me to talk to people (primarily: my students) about their own decisions regarding potential careers and college majors and whether or not college is even worth the effort.
When I look back at my time in college, the emotions that come to mind are excitement and fear. I was excited my first semester at Miami Dade, to finally be doing something that I felt passionate about; but I was also scared shitless because I’d already tried this college thing once at FIU (Florida International University for the uninitiated) and failed miserably at it, both literally and figuratively (of the twelve classes I took my freshman year at FIU, I passed one–Calculus II–with a C, and only because our professor told us whatever we got on the final exam would be our grade for the semester…best believe I made it to that test, though I obviously forgot the whole studying part).
I didn’t know if I was going to make it during my second run. I didn’t even really know–if I did make it–what I was going to make it in. That first year I couldn’t make up my mind whether I wanted to be a journalist, an author, a magazine editor, a researcher, a pamphlet organizer, or whatever; I just knew I loved writing, the very general term.
Yet I jumped into the entire thing because what I had been doing with my life up to that point (i.e. nothing) was really not something I could choose over…well, anything.
I also jumped in, though, because I felt something different sitting in my first college English course in the Fall of 2004. A sense of rightness, a shift in my overall mentality that quickly transferred from the classroom to the rest of my life.
I cleaned up, got my shit together, and embarked on the tumultuous journey of a literary academic.
And sure, it was fun, and effective, and totally worth getting six phone calls a day right now from various student loan companies.
But would I recommend it to anybody? This is where we start getting into murky territory, as I am still a college professor, and probably shouldn’t make recommendations against the interests of my employer.
To answer that question though, let me just throw out a little anecdote coupled with some statistics, which should effectively keep me from shooting myself in the foot/career…hopefully.
Bob is a recent high school grad, a man-boy who’s been told his whole life that he needs to get a university degree if he wants to be successful.
So now, Bob’s a college student (yay!)
Bob decided to save a little money by going to community college (an option that’s about half the price–on average–of university costs) for two years, getting his AA then transferring to a public university.
Bob has his shit together.
Bob’s on point, at the registration office early before the rush of sleepy-eyed and pissed-off masses come in to demand answers as to why their schedules are all screwed up. Bob has a job, so he’s paying for his classes out of pocket this first semester, and Bob has a general idea of what he wants to do with his professional life (let’s say…accounting. Bob fucking loves numbers.)
Bob has a girlfriend. Bob has his own car. Bob visits his grandmother weekly and pays his parents’ electric bill without them asking, every month. Bob is not your stereotypical slacker teen.
Bob goes into that first semester loving life. Takes his general education courses and does well in them all, though he notices that his professors (who are all part-time adjunct faculty) seem a little distracted throughout the semester; a little tired, a little under-prepared, a little flustered overall. No worries though, he studies the material, aces his tests, and gets his first four straight A’s.
Bob does the same thing again the next semester, and the semester after that (even takes summer classes), working and paying for his tuition, studying his ass off and ignoring the instinct that tells him both the administrators and his professors are not totally on the same page and/or operating at optimal levels. Bob just supplements his classroom education with his own personal research into each topic discussed in lecture.
After his first year, Bob is looking like an academic king with a 3.9 GPA, and he’s ready to start jumping into a few of his major courses.
These courses, however, are a little bit more difficult than your basic freshman composition or college algebra gen ed b.s. These courses are taught by actual full-time professors (who are all vying for tenure and therefore actually give a shit about the material).
Two weeks in, Bob’s job’s starting to get in the way of his studying time, and since this new batch of professors are exponentially more heavy in their teaching tactics than his previous instructors, he’s got to spend much more time hitting the books at home. So he cuts back on his hours at [insert job, most likely in the hospitality industry], and within another couple of weeks he’s having trouble paying his bills.
Bob scrapes through the semester, ends up with two A’s and two B’s, which is not bad but is not at the performance level he expects of himself (Bob has set the bar high). So he decides to cut back on his hours at work even more during this last semester at community college, maybe even quits his job entirely (I mean, he’s leaving to university in the next six months anyways and he’ll have to leave the job then, so what’s a few months early?)
Problem now though is that Bob doesn’t have enough money to pay for his tuition in this final semester of his AA. So Bob takes out a loan–a government loan, low interest, just enough to pay his tuition and supplement his decreased (or nonexistent) hours at work.
No biggie. It’s one loan, less than two grand. Bob’s expecting to be making more than that a month out of college, so he’ll be on top of it.
Main point: Bob has time to study now, so he does. He studies his ass off, gets straight A’s, and within five months he’s walking onto that stage in his cap and gown and shaking the hand of a smiling campus president.
Bob is now officially a college degree recipient, though there’s not very much he can do with this AA aside from move on to the next level of schooling.
So he does. He started applying to various universities around the state in his second-to-last semester of community college, and Bob’s got a stellar resume so he got accepted to every single one. He’s got the pick of the litter, and he decides to go to the greatest school in Florida: Florida State University (had to throw that one in there…Go Noles).
So now, after returning his cap and gown and receiving his AA in the mail, Bob gets to the task of moving. He doesn’t have very much money saved since he quit his job, but he does his research, finds cheap places to live in Tallahassee (he’s no longer a teenager or a freshman anymore at 20–almost 21–so he doesn’t want to live in an overly-expensive and cramped freshman dorm room), finds a couple of random roommates, takes out another loan (totally justified considering what he’s trying to do, but this one has to pay for a lot more than tuition, so Bob’s looking at a few more grand now) for the move, and embarks on his new journey.
At FSU, Bob signs up for his first semester of classes and realizes fairly quickly that there’s a huge difference between this level of schooling and the one he just came from. Fully in his major now, taking courses that are specific to his accounting discipline and therefore hella technical, Bob realizes he can’t work full time and hope to finish his degree in a timely manner.
So Bob gets a part time job, paying a little above minimum wage, strictly to pay for food and gas and those few drunken nights at the strip. For tuition and rent though, he takes out more loans.
Semester after semester passes, and Bob is having a blast. He’s an A/B student overall, his professors love him, his part-time job loves him, his new girlfriend loves him (left the old one behind; long distance rarely works at that age) and he’s headed for a fruitful life.
Then graduation day hits, and suddenly Bob finds himself holding a BA in Accounting, with his future completely open in front of him.
So Bob moves back home to his parent’s house–a temporary situation, one his parents are happy to oblige in an effort to help out their college grad while he maneuvers his way through this transition period.
And by transition period, I mean the infamous Job Search.
And search Bob does.
But first he goes back to that old job he had when he first started his college career (that one that was probably in the hospitality industry), regaining his position on a part time basis so he can help his parents out and carry his own weight while he figures shit out. Other than that though, Bob’s on the computer on Monster and Indeed and Craigslist and every other relevant website. And when he’s not on the computer, he’s out in public with stacks of resumes, networking like crazy.
One month passes. Then another. Then another. The student loan companies that serviced Bob’s loans start sending him letters to inform him that his deferment period will soon be up and he’ll have to start paying his monthly dues. Bob sees how much these monthly dues will be and figures the number into his calculations regarding a desired salary–a salary that is also meant to cover rent, food, gas, phone, cable, the loans, and any other miscellaneous fees.
The number he comes up with is not unreasonable. It is, however, not something he is finding. Anywhere.
So Bob stays at his current job–the same one he had prior to embarking on this collegiate journey, the one that is simultaneously populated by employees who have never in their life even considered going to college and–in doing so– are currently in a better position than Bob because they don’t have the aforementioned student loans to worry about.
Or maybe Bob finds a job with a salary less than what he budgeted for. In this adjusted scenario, Bob has a paycheck that is maneuverable but also requires a couple of cut corners. With a check, he has his own place, a studio or one bedroom that he tells himself is temporary; without that check, he’s staying at his parent’s house. Either way, he’s missing a few loan payments, eating ramen noodles a couple more times a week than he’d prefer.
A year after leaving college, Bob isn’t as refreshed as he was the previous year, or any of the years before that. Frankly, he’s struggling to pay rent after that last increase. If he’s still at his parent’s house, dejection is starting to creep into his veins like heroin, a little cynicism infecting his aforementioned hopefulness.
And, of course, Bob will be thinking a lot during this time period. About how he’s in basically the same position he was in before college, albeit with more bills. Bob will be thinking and reading, about a lot of things. Namely the state of higher education and the reasons why his professors back at that community college didn’t seem as involved as they should have and didn’t prepare him for the rigors of university education as thoroughly as he would have hoped.
Another year will pass. Maybe two.
Eventually, Bob will get a sufficient job, something in line with his degree–I mean, come on, Bob’s the shit–but his credit rating (and his parents’) will have taken a hit from the missed loan payments. He will also be playing catch up well into his 30’s.
Eventually, Bob will be okay, and will get to a point where he can look back at his college years with the pleasant nostalgia it deserves, and not the self-doubt it currently conjures in him.
Bob’s going to make it work. Barely.
We salute you, Bob. Keep grindin’.
1. In 1970, if you were a college professor, you were set. And if you were a college student, you were pretty much investing in the most secure future you could ask for. Chances are, when you were in the classroom, you were meeting up with somebody who did nothing (career-wise) but teach and research in their discipline. Which spurred you to focus on your studies, graduate on time, get your degree, and get a sick ass job.
Back then, 78% of instructors in a college setting were tenured or tenure-track professors, with the other 22% being part time adjunct faculty.
By 2009, that number had flipped, with 2/3rd’s of instructors being adjunct and the rest being tenured or tenure-track.
The disadvantage? For the college, none, really. Employers don’t have to give part-time employees benefits, which is only one of the ways they save money with the practice.
For the students and part-time faculty though?
Most adjunct faculty members cannot survive off their low-end salaries, and therefore have to get 2nd jobs to make ends meet. Which wouldn’t be a problem if having a 2nd job (and dealing with the life of a dual-job holder overall) wasn’t an added distraction to their time in the classrooms, leading to professors not being as focused on teaching, a mentality which inevitably trickles down to the student.
This directly affects retention and graduation rates of students which, despite high enrollment, are still extremely low.
It’s hard for an instructor to motivate a student to be enthusiastic about their college career when they are so overworked and under-appreciated that they feel no motivation themselves.
Basically the equivalent of paying for a meal in a restaurant where the cook is also the manager and server on a busy night, and receiving minimum wage for all their effort.
See how fast your food comes out (if at all).
And the quality?
2. More stats:
– Since 1978, the cost of college tuition in the United States has gone up by over 900 percent.
– In 2010, the average college graduate had accumulated approximately $25,000 in student loan debt by graduation day.
– Approximately two-thirds of all college students graduate with student loans.
– Americans have accumulated well over $900 billion in student loan debt. That figure is higher than the total amount of credit card debt in the United States.
This research was conducted in 2010. The situation has undoubtedly gotten worse. And couple that with the fact that 53% of recent college graduates are unemployed or working in a job that has nothing to do with their degree, and you can see how this could become an epidemic (if it’s not already in that category).
The combination of these statistics is the overall reason for my current thought processes regarding college education. The longer you’re in college–specifically at the university level–the more money you will inevitably end up owing, without a guarantee of the professional benefits to go along with it (not to mention the whole “overqualified” dilemma, but that’s a whole other story).
Let me be clear: I loved my college life and love my current life as an instructor within the collegiate system, and I don’t regret going to college on any level. But that’s mostly because I went in knowing what I wanted, knowing what I was going to get, and knowing that it would be a difficult process in the aftermath.
My only reason for writing this is as a precaution to people embarking on that journey now: think long and hard before you make that leap.
Because in 2014, enrolling as “Undecided” can be one of the most expensive decisions you make in your entire life.
And now time for a relevant video: