Is College Worth It?

A controversial title, I’m sure. It seems that everyone has an opinion on college, whether good or bad. Some people think that a person must go to college to be successful in business, career, and money, and that’s simply not the case. However, for the majority of people, a college education can be a good investment, as long as one is learning the skills to thrive in an emerging and needed industry for their career, and has a way to pay for it without spending years in debt.

As my story below will show you, my college “career” was a lengthy one, taking five years to complete. A lot of this was due to my own desire to have a certain format of schooling and not be willing to deviate from that. Additionally, I was unwilling to take general education classes at the local community college, which may have taken a little bit longer, but would have definitely been less expensive. Finally, we started going to school without really having a plan in mind. That got really expensive, really fast.

When we began going to college, we didn’t even blink twice about signing up for student loans – big mistake. The thing was, I didn’t really understand how the whole financial aid thing worked at the time, and was under the impression that by filling out the FAFSA form online, that it would let us know if there was any “free” aid out there that we qualified for. Again, big mistake. We didn’t really qualify for any free college money, and so were just enrolled in student loans. We didn’t have cash to really pay for the program and so we went along with the student loans, believing that’s just how people got through college. If I had a college fund, I’d use it, but I didn’t have one. It didn’t even cross my mind to try to pay for it as we went and to cash flow our schooling. I don’t know if we could have paid for it all the way with our own money, but, I’ll never know because I didn’t even try.

As I type this, I have my very first student loan payment due next month, and I’ll have many more months of student loan payments to follow. This very fact is one of the reasons that makes me ask the question in this title: Is College Worth It?

When I graduated high school, college was pretty far off on my back burner. I wasn’t sure what I would have wanted to study, so I thought that tripping around college for the next 4+ years would have been kind of a waste. Besides, who was going to pay for it? There was no college fund. I was a hard worker and had been working for years and figured I would find a job that I liked and work my ass off at it, and work my way up the chain that way. It was a good plan, I decided – my father had instilled that idealism in me, and it seemed to work out for him.

In 2001, I had fallen into a job before I had even graduated high school to act in an administrative capacity for a mortgage broker. I had gotten the job through a family friend and thought it was as good a place as any to begin a career. When I met my now husband, he was a few years older than me and had already been working several years in the HVAC industry. He had taken a few courses at the local community college but wasn’t presently pursuing any education. I took one real estate class at the community college to sort of get my feet wet with the practices and terminology in the industry, and then after that, higher education fell to the back of my mind.

Fast forward several years – we had purchased a house, gotten engaged, gotten married, and then began round after round of being laid off from various companies. The HVAC industry took a nosedive when the economy tanked, and my husband would get hired at companies that would promise him the world (ie – company trucks, paid vacation, good wages, good benefits) and then lay him off after 6 weeks, 3 months, a year. I had worked my way up to being a loan processor by that point, still in the mortgage industry, which we all know took a really hard hit come 2006-2007. By 2008, we were both unemployed, living in a county with a 22% unemployment rate, and had little savings to fall back on.

Having some education sounded really good right about then.

Instead, we were faced to take some minimum wage jobs to keep the lights on and food on the table. We had no experience in other career fields and with so many unemployed people in one area, there were hundreds of people applying for even the simplest jobs available.

We decided to look into moving to a new area, one that hadn’t been hit quite so hard by the economic crash. Surely there were areas without outrageous costs of living, decent employment prospects, etc. We narrowed our search down to two major metropolitan areas, and then moved to the Pacific Northwest in March 2009.

We found jobs almost immediately and began rebuilding our lives. Part of that included some savings in the bank (in case of another financial emergency) and we also looked into education. Something that hadn’t seemed so important just a few years earlier, now seemed like the right thing to do. If we had some business degrees, for instance, there comes a lot of versatility in the types of jobs we might be qualified for, even in an economic downturn. Since we were working full time, it didn’t seem to make sense to enroll in community college, since many of the general ed classes we’d need would be held during the day. We decided we needed something for adult learners. We did a little bit of research and found a college that was offering just the thing. It was a traditional, Christian private school, who had just begun offering a “one night a week” adult learning format. We enrolled in August 2010 in their Associates Degree program which would take two years to complete.

After about six classes in, we were pretty unsatisfied. The program was quite disorganized, typical cases of the left hand not talking to the right hand, but our main unhappiness stemmed from the learning format, the degree of variability between teaching styles (we’d have 3 very easy classes in a row — those teachers stating they didn’t want to go TOOO hard on all of us people “returning” to school — and then we’d get a class with a teacher who expected us to be performing at junior or senior college level, and assign mountains of class work and homework, and had super harsh grading). It was also quickly coming to light that this was sort of a liberal arts course of study, and we hadn’t learned any practical business methodology yet. It was an unpleasant experience, and we began looking into other schooling options.

Still desiring that evening format for the adult learner, we transferred our credits and enrolled at the University of Phoenix. I know, I know. Most people have heard tremendous horror stories about the UoP. I began researching online and found tons of reviews and stories of people who were unhappy with the online schooling format, but we had found a local “campus” that was teaching in-person classes, and I thought that most of the troubles I had read about online (miscommunication, deadlines, time zone differences) would be alleviated by the fact we’d be going to school live, not virtually. The first 6-12 months of classes went fine, and then we started having troubles again – everything from the programs changing, different teaching styles, miscommunication with the school, accounting department staff that were straight bullies, academic counselors who’s hands were tied and didn’t have any real power to help us out. A financial mix-up basically forced my husband to stop attending school, and he had to put in for a “leave of absence” through the program, and then officially dropped. My unhappiness and stress level mounting, I dropped the program as well. We decided to spend a couple of months researching more schools, and deciding where we would finally finish up our degrees. By that time we had a majority of the amount of credits needed to gain bachelor’s degrees, with about a year and a half to two years needed to finish up.

We researched and interviewed schools, and eventually decided on and enrolled in our third adult degree program format, at yet another Christian private college. The promise was degree completion within 16 months. We were exhausted, having been in school for over three years already, but we had also come too far to stop. We each had quite a bit of student loan debt by then, and it seemed silly to have to pay for all of that student loan debt and not have the piece of paper to show we had even finished. So, we agreed to the next 16 months, and began the most rigorous part of our college learning.

Since our new program was a “degree completion” plan, it’s designed that most students already had their general ed and elective requirements out of the way. The school does offer classes and programs to meet some additional credit requirements if those are lacking, but if you want to graduate with your track cohort, then you’re putting in the extra time to double up and take two or more classes at once, which can be a heavy load. Just taking one class is a lot of work, not to mention more than that. Both my husband and I had some elective and general ed requirements to complete, so at several points during the program, one or both of us was taking two classes at once. Our graduation date was set for May 2015 and we were so excited!

Due to us both using an alternative learning format to meet some of our elective requirements, my husband’s credit evaluation was still outstanding come April 2015. At the last minute, they told him that he wouldn’t have enough credits to graduate the following month, and that he’d need to take some additional classes. He was so unhappy with this news. We had been in school together all this time, and had always been working toward the goal of graduating together. It was extremely disappointing for all of us. I ended up graduating and he could not yet. However, he bit the bullet and took those extra classes, meeting his final credit requirement in August 2015, and is walking in the school graduation ceremony next month, in December. I am so, so very proud of him for sticking it out and completing his program requirements so that he can graduate, even though it was terribly frustrating.

My husband’s degree is in Management and Organizational Leadership. I have always felt that this is quite a versatile degree that can be used in a variety of ways, which is nice because it doesn’t limit someone to a very narrow scope of a career. Within just a few weeks of finishing his program, he was able to get hired on at a new company and is already working at running his own projects, and is increasing efficiency at the company.

My degree is in Project Management, which is a little bit more of a specialized degree, but I also feel that it is versatile in the ways that it can also be used in business support, software support, deployment and execution projects. Matter of fact, I was recently approached with an opportunity at my company, and the skills I learned in my Project Management program will be perfect for this project.

In the end, I am happy with the degrees that we earned, and I feel that they are good degrees towards jobs that are needed, without being too narrow and specialized. This gives us options and doesn’t limit us to only one career path like some degrees could have. But there are definitely some things I wish we’d done differently. Researching schools more — even though we did that, I would have looked around more, maybe it would have alleviated us from having to change schools so much. I would have studied to understand financial aid and what exactly was happening when I filled out that very first FAFSA form. I would have tried to pay cash for some of it. Towards the end there are classes that we paid cash for just to try to limit the amount of our borrowing, but it was almost a sense of too little, too late — our student loan balances had been brewing for years with deferred interest to boot.

Am I glad that I went to college? Most days, yes. I am happy to have worked so hard to earn a college degree and I’m really glad where I ended my college career. I also learned a ton. Everything from critical thinking skills, business methodologies, human resource issues, how to work in teams, how to work virtually, relating with different cultures, how to plan and execute projects, how to implement change in the workplace. These are just a few of the things I learned that I know were valuable.

But the amount of student loan debt hanging around for my husband and I now, makes me want to throw up a little. Those degrees are costing us dearly, and delaying things like building our retirement savings and being able to try to have another child. So I implore you readers to take a hard look at all of the aspects of a college career if you’ve decided that you’re going back to school. There’s nothing wrong with tripping around community college for awhile to get some requirements out of the way and learn more about the area of study you think you want to pursue. But pay cash for it, work hard and save up some dough so that you can just write a check for the books and pay your semester tuition and move on. The fact that our student loans were going into repayment and how that would change our household financial picture is one of the main reasons I began listening to Dave Ramsey and became interested in his teachings, and now my husband and I are about to graduate from his Financial Peace University. Believe me, there’s a ton we’ve learned in that class that we wish we had known 10 years ago. The good thing is, we can still make positive changes now and set ourselves up right in the coming years, but it’s going to be a lot of hard work.

I don’t wish to discourage anyone from going to college if that’s what they’d like to do. But be sure what you are getting yourself into. Go in with eyes WIDE open. Ask tons of questions. Ask the schools you are interviewing for references to contact graduated students, and candidly speak with them about their experience at the school. PAY CASH FOR YOUR EDUCATION.  Make sure you’re attending reputable colleges with good graduation rates. Attend public university if possible, it’s almost always less expensive than a private school. Take the time to apply for scholarships that you’re eligible for. Utilize tuition programs at your employer, if they offer them. Joining the military is another option for people interested in serving their country, and getting some or all of their education paid for in the process. If you test well, look into taking some CLEP tests to meet your general education requirements. A $79 CLEP test might be a lot cheaper than a class that costs several hundred or even over a thousand dollars. Ask your school about ways to meet credit requirements alternatively — for instance, the school we graduated from allowed students to write life-learning essays to be evaluated for college credit. Writing those essays sure were a pain in the butt, but it would have cost more money to take a class in place of that essay. These are just some suggestions that I wish someone had given to me, back before August 2010 🙂