The Hidden Cost of an American Education

depression

A college student’s senior year is often a time of celebration.

For many, it serves as a victory lap – a final rendezvous with Natty Light and 11 A.M. alarms before plunging into the mundanity of adult life.

Unfortunately, my senior year didn’t quite turn out that way. In fact, I spent a good portion of it fighting a war with myself.

No, I’m not just talking about that cliched existential crisis we all face at the end of adolescence. I’m talking about a deeper kind of pain, one that sometimes left me paralyzed in bed, literally moaning from the psychic hell I was experiencing.

I’m talking about depression.

I spent the end of my collegiate career fighting this ugly battle, one that robbed me of the energy needed to do much of anything outside of barely pass my classes.

And in hindsight, I can’t shake the feeling it was completely unnecessary.

You see, somewhere near the end of my junior year, I decided to drop out. As the idea of wage slavery crept closer to reality, I realized I preferred a more independent career path. This discovery rendered my remaining economics curriculum pretty useless.

But to mention it to any of my contemporaries was to commit blasphemy:

“WHAT?! DROP OUT DURING YOUR SENIOR YEAR?! YOU’LL RUIN YOUR FUCKING LIFE!!”

Their words may have been different, but after receiving this feedback from literally every person who heard the idea, I reluctantly chose to spend one more year obtaining my piece of paper.

Cue: the Elliot Smith.

Joking aside, completing my education had a severe impact on my mental health. And I’m not alone.

Student depression has climbed dramatically in the past couple of decades. A generation of kids in the prime of their lives is increasingly succumbing to hopelessness and anxiety. What gives?

I propose this trend indicates a broader problem: one whose causes touch the very fabric of our culture.

Namely, the present state of American education is a steaming pile of shit. And its costs are much more than a mounting sum of debt.

Is college worth it?

hireme

When asked why they go to college, students overwhelmingly cite one reason: to get a better job.

A 2014 study revealed that 86.1% of incoming freshman listed this as “very important” in their decision to continue their schooling. Some of the lower ranked reasons include “to gain an appreciation of ideas” and “to make me a more cultured person.”

When you look at the numbers, this reasoning is justified.

The median income for 25-32 year olds with a college degree is $45,500. For those with a high school diploma, it’s $28,000. Most well-paying jobs require higher education these days. That’s just the way she goes.

But what is the necessity of this requirement? Does the material we spend four additional years of our lives learning really make us such valuable workers?

Outside of technical fields (i.e. engineering, computer science, nursing, etc.), it’s kind of hard to argue that it does.

Sure. College teaches us a great deal about the human condition. We get to spend four years engaging with some of mankind’s most important ideas. If nothing else, an education makes it easier to navigate this strange little thing called life.

But most of the information we learn in the classroom has little practicality in the workforce. Doing a job requires completing a process, not the ability to quote James Joyce.

What’s more, the knowledge held by educated people is becoming more and more accessible these days.

Programs like Code Academy offer free courses in computer programming. EdX provides free classes from prestigious colleges like Harvard and MIT. Teaching yourself a language is as easy as downloading Duolingo, and you can learn about the humanities by, you know, visiting a library.

Becoming an exceptional person doesn’t require a university’s seal of approval – especially with the advent of the digital age. Yet today’s job market solely cares about that distinction.

In that sense, college’s value has little to do with becoming a better worker.

It’s become a brand.

If you want a stable career, you need the external validation that a diploma provides. Little attention will be paid to your individual merits if you ain’t rockin’ one. If you ask me, that’s a fucking tragedy.

But yes. When you look at the numbers, a college degree still holds a lot of value. While that value is largely superficial, it still exists.

Sadly, this trend comes with some pretty dire consequences.

The Debt Bomb: Turning self-discovery into self-limitation

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Another oft-cited benefit of college is the chance to “discover yourself.”

We like to think of our university years as a time of liberation. Our first taste of independence is supposed to provide us the perfect opportunity to explore our political views, bisexuality and love for Bon Iver.

But the realities of today’s world have largely obscured this romantic notion of soul-searching.

The issue can be attributed to one thing: student debt.

You hear millenials bitching about it all of the time, and for good reason; the average American is coming out of school nearly $30,000 in the hole.

But with the higher wages they’ll earn, that’s not so bad right?

Well for one, that answer is becoming less and less certain.

For instance, if a girl manages to save $400 a month for the rest of her life after high school, she’ll have a net worth of $1.6 million when she’s 65. If she goes to college, accrues $30,000 in debt and starts saving $400 a month after school (which goes towards her debt for 6 years), her net worth will only be $800k at the same age.

Thus, a higher education could cost someone half of their potential lifetime wealth.

Of course, other factors are involved. The college-educated girl will likely have a better job, which will allow her to save more money and junk.

But the most insidious problem is that not everyone ends up getting, or wanting, one of those magical jobs. What’s more, having to find a means to make their education “worth it” is likely what’s driving college students crazy.

You see, college is a financial investment we millenials don’t really get to choose. For most of us, a higher education is a foregone conclusion.

Ages 14-16 are spent taking PSATs, SAT’s and ACT’s. We visit campuses, apply for scholarships, take AP classes and narrow our list of choices during our junior and senior years. Then, we have to commit to a school before we even graduate.

Our high school careers largely serve as a stepping stone to higher education.

After that, the debt we assume during college robs the freedom we need to do anything else with our lives.

For example, imagine a guy discovers that he’d rather be an actor than an actuary during his sophomore year. But he can’t completely devote himself to the craft yet, because he’s already five figures in debt, and he NEEDS that University Brand on his name first to make up for it.

Thus, he waits to pursue acting until after he graduates.

However, he soon realizes that the prospect of making monthly loan payments for a decade is too hard to handle on top of the initial uncertainty his dream job requires.

So he settles for a position at an insurance firm after a few months, then spends the rest of his days as a cynical, high-functioning alcoholic.

In this case, the self-actualization college was supposed to provide really just limited his capacity to actually do what he wanted with his life. Student loans took away the autonomy he needed to follow the desires of his changing identity.

For those who start to recognize this pattern during school, the anxiety can be crushing.

When you realize your degree is not leading you toward a future you’d like, everything starts to suck.

You hate the tedium of your assignments. You hate the life they’re preparing you for. You hate the superficial smiles of your peers who still buy into the system. Most of all, you hate the fact that you’re hating all of it.

But you can’t escape the cycle without risking financial suicide. So you must face the notion of surrendering your youth, and potentially the course of your life every single day, just to pay for a process you never got a say in.

At that point, the idea of stopping and ending it all can become pretty damn enticing.

… or maybe that’s just what I went through. But judging by the increasing rates of student depression, I think the process is more common than you would think.

What can we do?

Bernie Sanders

Put bluntly: We cannot continue to let education have such a dismal impact on our youth’s financial futures.

Two options exist.

1.) If higher education is so valuable that all well-paying jobs require it, then we must remove student debt out of moral necessity.

or

2.) If college is a privilege that comes with a financial cost, then we cannot discriminate against those who choose an alternative path.

Having young people sign away their futures before they get the chance to choose them is downright cruel. On the other hand, only rewarding those who are well-adapted to the system is equally wrong.

Other nations have already caught on to this issue.

Brazil, Germany, France, Norway, Sweden and Slovenia are just a few of the world’s countries that provide free, or nearly free, tuition for young people. The U.S. must adopt a similar model going forward if it wants to maintain its ever-dwindling image as the Land of Opportunity.

But if we can’t change the system, then at the very least we should encourage more young people to take some time off after high school.

A gap year provides a tremendous opportunity for someone to reflect on his path that the inevitable debt bomb removes.

Yet doing so would require us to put less emphasis on the fabled “college process” which characterizes the end of our high school careers. So even this change would be difficult to carry out.

Still, something needs to be done if we want to quit driving our young people crazy.

Let’s quit stealing the lust for life before it even begins, and reconsider the cost of college.

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2 thoughts on “The Hidden Cost of an American Education

  1. You are talking about two different things here. Someone choosing to pursue the dream of acting has to accept that the odds are not ever in their favor, whether or not they go the college route. Same thing with pro sports or any other intensely competitive field.

    I agree that students shouldn’t have to face a mountain of debt upon graduation. I disagree that higher education has no value added. If 18-year-olds had the knowledge and discipline required to assemble a curriculum from those free online resources you mention, they would. Many millennials are less than comfortable with face-to-face human interaction and Khan Academy isn’t going to help them.

    College is hard. It’s supposed to be. It’s monetary costs are not hidden. They are quite transparent to anyone with information literacy. I am genuinely sorry for the suffering you experienced from depression. I think the burden of millennials has more to do with unequal opportunities and distorted power structures of our current society than with the challenges of college.

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    1. calebepley93

      Hey, there. I really appreciate your thoughts.

      I guess I should clarify; I’m not trying to say that college doesn’t have intrinsic value. I agree that a higher education can be instrumental in teaching people how to think critically. And you’re right; very few have the self-motivation needed to achieve that skill solely through Khan Academy.

      However, my point is that that worth is not reflected in the job market.

      Like I said, freshman cite “getting a better job” as the most important reason they go to school. What’s more, we’ve reached the point where most companies prefer that even their secretaries have four year degrees. While a higher education does provide personal growth, that’s not the primary reason people are going.

      And it’s not just unicorn careers like acting that can cause a person grief. The same could be said for someone who wants to switch fields, start a business, backpack around the world, or even just pull a Lester Burnham after they realize they hate the office grind.

      But once you’re facing debt, those options become way less feasible. Thus, the freedom that a changing identity requires turns into a cage. And from my own experience, that’s what leads to depression.

      But if you can do it without debt, I’d probably agree that college is still the right move for most.

      Like

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