College was always my end goal. I knew that I would have to work my way through it in order to afford it, and I tried to be smart about what I studied so that I could maximize my future employment opportunities. As a former high school dropout, I was acutely aware of the value of a college degree.
I spent four years sweating and stinking like ham and onions while balancing a full-time gig at a grimy pizza shop and a full course load. Despite my best efforts, I still ended up graduating with student loan debt, albeit not as much as my peers. I wasn’t lucky; I was a damn hard worker.
Then in 2008, the economy crashed. My husband and I closed on a house and felt certain that we would be able to weather the economic storm. We both had nice jobs and we could more than afford our lifestyle. We had a nest-egg started. We had big plans. But as the economy ground our plans to halt, as it did for many other families around us, I began to wonder what I could do to become more competitive in the job market. That’s when I let my former college advisor talk me into applying to graduate school.
Graduate school was the most expensive mistake of my damn life, and I regret it 100 percent.
Now that I have three kids, I will not be encouraging them to go to traditional four-year college, and I will actively talk them out of graduate school unless that extra (and stupidly expensive) degree is a requirement for a job they actually have a chance of obtaining.
I’m planning on shaping them to understand that community college or alternative routes to success are the way to go. While I may be in good standing with my student loans, I will likely die owing the federal government on my student debt. I don’t ever want my kids to be in this position. Their dreams of a bright future shouldn’t keep them tethered to interest rates and outrageous debts.
My children can gain immeasurable skills and experiences from joining clubs and sports, volunteering in their communities, and finding ways to be actively involved in our community. They can go to community colleges or trade schools where they can get certified to work in fields that will pay. I know plumbers and electricians who live in far nicer houses than I do with my fancy-pants degrees.
My mother raised me in poverty. She always told me that I could be whatever I wanted, as long as I worked hard and stayed focused. But my reality—which I share with millions of other Americans—is that I can’t be whoever I want to be no matter how hard I work. I did everything “right,” and I am living paycheck to paycheck. This is not a character flaw. It’s not my fault our country has systems in place that prevent upward mobility despite the myth of the American Dream.
I tell my kids, for better or for worse, that yes, they really can be whoever they want to be when they grow up. Aim high, indeed. But that message is tempered with truths. My 8-year-old wants to grow up to be a ninja. He obsesses over Jackie Chan and is teaching himself Mandarin Chinese (he can already speak conversationally!). But I’m not telling him that he can be the next martial arts superstar. Instead, my husband and I affirm his clear talents for language and storytelling. Maybe we can help him to cultivate those natural talents into marketable skills. Who knows.
My kids can have bright futures without saddling themselves with obscene amounts of debt. Being a first-generation college grad in my family, I wasn’t experienced enough to know the difference, but my kids will learn in gritty detail what financial pitfalls to avoid while plotting their education beyond high school.
When I look at my children, I envision their lives being freer than mine. I want them to pursue their dreams and not be tied down because of debt. The story I told myself was that a higher education degree would release me from poverty. Instead, I found that I may be a whole helluva lot more knowledgeable, but I’m buried under so much debt that I will never have the luxury to experience anything different. I won’t let my kids make that same mistake.