Many, many years ago, I made one of those life-altering decisions that seemed like the only option at the time, felt like giving up, and would eventually cause pangs of regret in the years to follow. But now, in full hindsight, it turns out to be the smartest decision I ever made.
After graduating from high school on the positive side of the grading curve but not necessarily smashing that curve in any notable manner, I wound up at a prestigious, private technical school in upstate New York (Go Fractals!), one that I had worked very hard to get into and to which I had even earned a partial scholarship covering a good chunk of the total cost.
But from the moment I attended orientation and got the speech about which two thirds of us nerds would not be there at the end of four years, I got the shakes. Bad.
It wasn't about the courses, or the work, or the looming social scene or complete lack thereof. It was about the money.
I had worked all through high school, and had already learned the value of a dollar. For example, if I had worked 20 hours that week, I was going to have a decent weekend. If I had not, I was going to have to bum rides, steal beer, and find new and impressive ways to sneak into movie theaters, bars, and those college parties where they charge you at the door. Which, if you were a high school kid, was all of them.
Now, even with my partial ride and an additional work-study gig, my post-secondary education (books, room, walkman batteries, etc.) was still costing me in the five-figures per year out-of-pocket. Actually it came out to just under two grand per class. And let me tell you something that I didn't need advanced calculus to figure out: A $2,000 "A+" and a $2,000 "C-" both cost exactly the same.
After quite some time there and a series of never-ending loan statements for an increasingly gargantuan bill that would be on my doorstep shortly after graduation, I freaked out.
Then came the decision. An out-of-state public school with a decent engineering department had also accepted me out of high school. A panic-induced phone call to the admissions department at said school confirmed that:
1) It was likely that I could transfer
2) The price tag was about 35% of what I was currently paying
3) Once I established in-state residency, that figure dropped to 20%
Two grand per semester as opposed to two grand per class.
Did I look back for a moment?
You bet your sweet educated ass I did.
I regretted the decision the day I showed up for that second orientation, where I was given the same speech, now more pointed considering I hadn't survived the first one. I regretted it after graduation, through my first job out of college, and even somewhat today, where I'm more likely to be spotted in gear from that one school where I spent most of my time nearly failing out.
Although the gear is just a facade. That school, like most upstate private schools, has no football team. Just one hell of a chess club.
It's only recently that I've realized that I spent all that time regretting that decision because I was programmed to.
It's slammed into us from pre-school, even more so today than it was when I was a lad, that it's not the course load, it's the institution.
Guess what. Turns out in the real world, it's the load.
Engineering is hard, nerdy, unsexy, and thankless, but it's also useful. Thus, with the exception of my first job search out of college, it didn't really matter where the degree was from. Hell, it didn't much matter that the degree was there at all. What mattered was what I could do with it.
Today, even in the midst of this awful, employment-free recession, I still see a continuing trend of companies, companies that do things anyway, not really caring about the school from which the degree was purloined. Most of the time, as I alluded to earlier, they're not even sticklers on the specific type of degree. If it's close, and the experience is right, and the passion is there, that's what counts.
And here's the QED. As the recession gets worse, the value of the name of a school diminishes.
I have kids of my own now, and I'm seeing things from the other side of the differential equation. I'm convinced that no matter how their education is administered, it has to be centered around what they can use it for once they're done. And they need to work for it. Hard. And they need to work even harder once they put that education to use.
These days, even private elementary schools seem almost necessary, especially if you aren't lucky enough to live in the right district. And let me tell you, if you can afford it, you should do it.
But a prestigious school no longer gets you off the hook. If you're the parent, you've got to make sure that your kid not only gets an education, but learns to love it and chase it on their own. Also try to make sure they don't go into six-figure debt for a sociology degree.
If you're the kid, well, while you're undeclared, spend less time worrying about what will fulfill you and more time researching what will fulfill others.
Mainly, that person down the road who's going to hire you.
Finally, it's never too late. If you feel your education is lacking, go to community college, fire up the Internet, get a book and learn to make things -- useful things, not cute sweaters or intricate cupcakes.
Find a need. Fill it. Just make sure it has a profit margin. Because of all the life lessons that come along with an education, no matter where that education takes place, that last lesson is usually the one most glossed over.
Joe Procopio trades in pop culture and tech culture, allowing him to poke fun at so many things. He's written for a number of online and offline publications from the late, lamented Smug to the fancy-pants Chicago Tribune and also for television. He's a novelist, a shredder, a joker, and a family man. Scoff at joeprocopio.com or follow on Twitter @jproco.
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11.2.11 @ 9:29a
agree that our generation (and many before us) weren't shown a wide enough angle of the big picture. But hey, we had no Internet, and most of the adults around us were still stumbling around in disbelief, with no idea how the 80' they were living in - what with all the consumer electronics and cable tv and cocaine - related to the miserable lives they endured in the 40's and 50's.
We'll do better by our kids - we were programmed to do that too. As for me, I can buy the importance of skills that someone will pay for...however, I'd add that those skills need to be personally sustainable over time - they gotta play to their true aptitudes and interests - or they'll eventually turn into the next generation's midlife crisis.
Not that I'm speaking from, um, experience or anything...
11.2.11 @ 10:55a
Even more than the brand name of the school or the cost of the learning or the supposed quality that goes along with that brand name and higher cost and - I'll go so far as to say - even more than the actual education itself, it's about the people you meet, both in college and after, that are most important.
It's ALL about connections. It's just that rich people who go to rich schools with other rich people have more, better connections than everyone else. You're not paying for the education, you're paying for the network, ESPECIALLY with Ivy leagues and the like.
11.2.11 @ 3:46p
There are many advantages to college, no question, but someone has to understand why they really want to go.
In my case, it wasn't really necessary to get a degree in radio management. So - I didn't. Two years in, I dropped out, moved from a small college town in northern Louisiana to New Orleans and got busy working in the business of radio. Which is why I'm wildly famous now. :D
Each profession is different. Want to be a Wall St. stockbroker? You need the education with the contacts and the credibility to put you on the right path. Want to be a doctor? Probably should choose a quality establishment. Want to be a writer? Maybe an MFA will help, maybe it won't. Depends on your objectives and how you define "success" as a writer.
I would rather less money be spent forgiving student loans and more money dedicated to secondary education.