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The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.
(Photo: cjsmithphotography/Flickr)

(Photo: cjsmithphotography/Flickr)

The first time I left college, I had been going for a year directly out of high school. As a black woman who grew up in a lower middle-class household, I thought college offered a way for me to access the meritocratic way of life I’d heard so much about. But I had chosen the wrong school and the wrong city, and after about a year, I was feeling resentful. I didn’t like that I needed a degree for the world at large to acknowledge my worth—so I dropped out.

Without a clear plan, I was free. I moved to California and started working full-time at a coffee shop, in addition to part-time jobs at bookstores or waitressing to make ends meet. I was happy with my decision to leave school, and I found easy roommates in my co-workers and got promoted a lot.

The reality is that a lot of people with college degrees are working jobs they could have had without one.

Still, I didn’t feel like I was living up to my full potential—I knew I was smart enough to run the stores and restaurants I was working in, but I couldn’t prove it. In most cases, the one thing my bosses had over me was a college degree. By the time I was 25, re-enrolling seemed like a smart decision. I was working administrative desk jobs, and one of my bosses insisted that I could earn an additional $10,000 per year if I had a degree. That additional money could have made a big impact in my life, even if I was paying back student loans in the process. But what my boss didn’t fully consider, which I luckily did, was that the degree would cost me close to $51,000. Since I wouldn’t acquire a brand new skill set, there was a good chance I’d still be working the same exact job when I was done. I couldn’t see a way to go back to school, so I just dropped the idea entirely.

COLLEGE DEGREES DO NOT always have their advertised effect. We’re used to hearing about the pitfalls of avoiding college, especially how much money you’re likely to miss if you don’t go. The Pew Research Center released a study earlier this year that showcased the financial disparity among millennials who went to college versus those with only a high school education. They found that college-educated millennials earn more annually and are more likely to be employed full-time, but they are experiencing the highest rate of poverty compared to the college-educated adults of the past four generations.

Even though most millennials feel like their college degrees are worthwhile, they certainly don’t guarantee a job. That lack of connection between education and employment was jarring for me; I was raised to believe that there was a very real and immediate connection between a college degree and a higher income, but the reality is that a lot of people with college degrees are working jobs they could have had without one.

It wasn’t until I was 30 that I decided to go back to school. At that point, I was at another dead-end job at a bakery that made me feel brain-dead and hopeless; it wasn’t hard to give up my paycheck since I wasn’t earning that much. While the classes didn’t prepare me for a specific job, they did make me feel more confident about my ideas. This time, I loved it so much that I decided I wanted to be a professor. I moved to Wisconsin to start my master’s degree right after I graduated, expecting the same sort of encouragement; instead of the open, welcoming classroom I was used to, I was met with a business-like atmosphere. It was rigid and confining, and I wasn’t even sure that my degree would be useful. Using the same line of thinking of my old bosses at administrative jobs, most of my professors told me that, sure, I could teach with a master’s degree. But I’d be earning so much less than a person with a Ph.D.

There was an implicit understanding that my master’s degree would be effectively useless without yet another degree.

Much like how an undergraduate degree doesn’t guarantee a well-paying job anymore, there’s no longer any built-in security for college professors. Adjunct professors (those who have an M.A. or Ph.D. but no tenure-track position) earn a median salary of $2,700 per three-credit course, often teaching several classes at any college within driving distance to make ends meet. Even then, some are barely scraping by, sometimes living in their cars or squatting. In the most drastic example of this broken system, Margaret Mary Vojtko, an adjunct for 25 years, died penniless after she was let go from her job without severance pay.

I learned my lesson before I dedicated more time and money to pursuing a professorship that may not have materialized. Sure, with most universities struggling to increase diversity hiring, I might have been an attractive hire. But I wanted to use my education to help other people (students) and make a lasting impact in their lives; professors work way more than 40 hours a week, and most of that time is spent writing articles, attending and presenting at conferences, writing books, and developing coursework—teaching and connecting with students moves further and further down the list. The further I got into academia, the more I realized that it was never going to give me the space or resources to do what I really wanted to do. I only lasted one semester in my Ph.D. program.

PART OF THE PLACEBO effect of college is that we convince everyone that it’s a “good” sort of debt to have, when in reality, there’s no way to know whether you will experience that result. I supposedly got a full ride to both of the schools I attended, but still ended up with $60,000 in student loan debt because the scholarships did not include food, rent, and other basic expenses. And what did this “good” debt get me in the end? My graduate thesis—two entire years of my life—is languishing at the bottom of a box in an administrative office. It will never see the light of day, and much like 10th grade algebra, I will never need to refer to it in my day-to-day life. If I had stayed in academia, it could have been a sort of passport that would allow me to dive deeper into the well of the “publish or perish” ideology.

Instead, I decided to take the leap to writing full-time after I left school for the last time, and I’m glad I did. I have more time to volunteer and connect with people, I can easily find a home for my wide and varied ideas as a writer, and I actually spend more time researching now than I ever did as an academic.

Looking back, I fully recognize that mine is a privileged point of view—most people struggle to find ways to get into and pay for college, and here I am talking about how it might not matter, even after I fully engaged with and benefited from the very system I’m criticizing. Once, I believed strongly in the promises of education at each level—but at each level, those promises were proven wrong.

We’ve all been fooled when it comes to the current state of higher education. There’s a strange conflict emerging in America’s higher education system: The desire to learn and be a bigger part of the world is quickly taking a backseat to the financial reality of what universities take versus what they are offering. College is no longer a passport to a better life. The American university is a for-profit institution; with adjunct professors earning as much as a Starbucks barista, you might be better off going your own way.