A Review of the Cost, Effect and Value of the Pursuit of Higher Education
Ahhhhh, the feelings of determination, hopefulness, exhaustion, excitement, and nervousness, among so many others. The feelings experienced when applying to college. Application after application. Filling out and completing the FAFSA. Many hours spent before and/or after school in the guidance counselor’s office. Many drafts of personal statements later, you finally put those application packages in the mail and experience relief that lasts all of a few weeks, that is until the acceptance (and rejection) letters and financial aid/scholarship offerings start rolling in. This was my experience, but maybe yours was different. Maybe you came from a long line of family members who have “been there done that and got the t-shirt” – or in this case, the class ring – and whom could guide you the entire way. Maybe there wasn’t a FAFSA application for you to complete. Maybe your college education had been paid for before you were even born. Maybe. However, statistically speaking, African-Americans graduate with the most student loan debt when compared to any other race.
A study on the gaps in student loan debt between African-American and Caucasian millennials published in the journal, Race and Social Problems, found that Black millennials have 68.2% more student loan debt on average than do White millennials. But, why? One of the reasons provided in the study is the racial disparity in generational wealth, more specifically, in the ownership of liquid assets – that is, cash on hand or an asset that can be easily converted to cash with limited risk to its decrease in value. Simply stated, African-American and Latino families are less likely to be in a financial position to fund their children’s college educations than their Caucasian and Asian counterparts. The growing problem of student loan debt, particularly over the last decade, has been the subject matter of many headlines across various news outlets. There is almost no way to escape being enslaved, so to speak, by student loan debt as most debtors will not be able to discharge student loan debt in Chapter 7 or Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Thus, unless we can pay our required monthly student loan payments, (note: the average monthly payment for borrowers between ages 20 to 30 years is $351.00), we will suffer the consequences. Consequences such as a declining credit score, which can create obstacles for years to come, such as difficulty renting a place to live, purchasing a home, financing a car, obtaining business loans, and even securing the employment position of your dreams – YES, employers are running credit checks these days! Excuse me, as I roll my eyes.
Surely, we could explore how slavery and systematic oppression contribute to the disparity among the races, however, we are here to review whether it is valuable, cost-effective and necessary (overall) to pursue a higher education. So…is it? First, let’s explore the monetary value of pursuing a higher education in the United States. Are we naïve in believing that once obtained, a college degree will result in a foot-in-the-door and great financial success? Statistically, the answer is “no.” A U.S. Census Bureau report suggests that over the span of an adult’s working life (defined by the Census Bureau as earnings during the period of life from ages 25 through 64) on average, high school graduates can expect to earn $1.2 million, while college graduates who have earned a bachelor’s degree, can expect to earn $2.1 million. Those who’ve achieved master’s degrees typically earn, on average, $2.5 million in their working lifetime; Ph.D./doctoral degree holders do better at $3.4 million; and those with professional degrees, i.e. degrees in law and medicine, tend to do the best numerically with average earnings of $4.4 million over a working lifetime. Let us not forget, however, that more formal education means more time spent in school and increased student loan debt – so there is a tradeoff to be considered. In most cases overall, gone are the days of entering the middle-class workforce with nothing more than a high-school diploma. In “The Value of a College Degree” by Emily Hanford, Ms. Hanford states that “[p]eople who don’t get some kind of post-secondary education are quickly falling out of the American middle-class… [i]n 1970, only 26 percent of middle-class workers had any kind of education beyond high school. Today, nearly 60 percent of all jobs in the U.S. economy require higher education.”
Ok, so pretty much we figured out that (in general) monetarily, when looking at profit and earnings over a working lifetime (on average), it seems to make cents (pun intended) to go to college, even when having to navigate student loan debt. But what other factors need to be considered when trying to make an informed decision? How about years spent earning degrees, and life experience? Let’s explore these factors and more. Most would say that a bachelor’s degree is earned by spending 4 years between the ages of 18-22 at a college or university, but the reality is there are many variations as to how a bachelor’s degree is obtained and most graduates don’t hit that stage until after an average of 5 years. The choice to pursue a master’s degree or higher, can lead to delays in other life decisions, including, but not limited to traveling, marriage, having children, etc. Some career choices are more forgiving in regards to time and expense than others, i.e. choosing to be a paralegal versus a neurosurgeon. From a psychological perspective, in considering the impressionability and emotional, mental development and maturation that most experience from the ages of 18-22, one can argue that going away to a campus for 4 years, away from the comforts (or in some cases, to escape the discomfort) of home can teach one responsibility, accountability, team-work, effective communication and problem-solving skills, that one might not gain otherwise. Additionally, getting out of one’s typical surroundings in many cases can push one outside of their comfort zone and force one to interact with people from a variety of different backgrounds, be them socio-economic, ethnic, religious, etc., which are life-lessons that may take longer to acquire should one choose not to go away to college.
In our review it seems as if in our current day, in general, a baseline 4-year degree is a wise decision to make in establishing one’s foundation for life. However, choosing to pursue education beyond a bachelor’s should likely be more cautiously scrutinized and ultimately decided upon. At the end of the day (and this article), there is no blanket answer. Only YOU know YOU and your story best. Self-awareness is key in making all life decisions, no less important in weighing one’s options and ultimately making a decision to pursue higher education. The best thing to do is research, research, research! One should specifically research the field they would like to study and in which they would like to pursue a profession and in doing so, review the time, requirements, locality, cost of living, output and return that is associated with that particular degree and profession, against other life goals they have. If your dream is to be a dairy farmer in Wyoming, then the steps you should consider will be very different from the steps you would take to be an accountant in Manhattan. While so many underlying factors and considerations cannot be discussed in 1,400 words, or less, I hope that this can at least serve as a jumpstart to making informed educational decisions. And if you’ve already made these decisions, whether you were the educational pioneer in your family or come from a long-line of college graduates, I encourage you then to take time to look back and lend a helping hand – or article – to the next generation of our leaders attempting to make the decision that best suits their goals and aspirations.
By: J’Lee Maldonado, MSW
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