Every month after I've made my payment, I find myself staring at the total on my Direct Loans profile. I am not sure the total is getting smaller. Honestly, there were a few months after I first starting paying them back when I was sure my total owed amount grew. And I always ask the same question, "Was it worth it?"
It turns out my question is not so out of the ordinary. In fact, around half of college graduates are asking the same thing, according to a Gallup-Purdue University poll of college alumni.
For me, it isn't the debt alone that makes me wonder if I made the right choice about my college education. I gave birth to my first child a little over a month after my graduation and launched myself into young motherhood with no concrete plans of how I would be helping my husband pay the bills when my maternity leave ended.
The transition from college to career wasn't as I expected or envisioned. When I first started my university career, I pictured myself as Rory Gilmore, waiting in company lobbies, portfolio in hand, knocking every interview out of the park and refusing to back down until I was given the job of my dreams. Instead, I was squeezing into my pre-baby interview clothes, covering the bags under my eyes and interviewing for poorly paying entry levels jobs that didn't care whether or not I had a 4.0 and an interest in women's issues or how nutrition affects the symptoms of mental illness.
I took my resume to nonprofits who offered me just above minimum wage to work long hours, but I could barely pay for childcare and gas on that salary. Eventually, I landed a job in healthcare—the one place I never expected to see myself, working as a tech alongside coworkers who had spent eight weeks in school, while I had a four-year degree under my belt. While the pay was a little better, it was still not enough to cover childcare, so I accepted an overnight position and we made things work for as long as possible. All the while, I found myself asking, "Was it worth it?"
Eventually, I put together enough freelance work to pay the bills and quit my office job. I love what I do now, but it is completely unrelated to the Psychology degree I earned. I can see how a few of my writing intensive classes improved my writing skills and gave me the confidence to take a step into a career I never envisioned for myself. But never once have I been asked by a potential client if I have a degree, only if I had samples or if I would be willing to work on a trial basis. And so, even as I experience a mild amount of success, I find the same question resurfacing again and again: Is my degree, and the student loans I've amassed, worth it?
Unless the job market and the cost of education changes completely before my children graduate high school, I don't see clear benefits to requiring my children to enroll in a four-year school.
All of this has me thinking about my daughters and the future of their education. Three years ago, I would have insisted college is where every child belongs, but now I'm questioning if that's really a great idea to push on my children. For millennials like me, we were under the impression that a college degree and great internship were enough to catapult your career. Now, we are seeing that is no longer true. A moderate budget for the 2014-2015 academic year averaged around $23,000 for in-state public colleges and around $46,000 for private colleges. Meanwhile, about 70 percent of 2013 graduates left college with an average of $28,400 in debt. And unless the job market and the cost of education changes completely before my children graduate high school, I don't see clear benefits to requiring my children to enroll in a four-year school.
Does that mean I will be pushing them in the opposite direction? Absolutely not. It simply means their dad and I will encourage them to take a good, hard look at their skills and aspirations and ask themselves what is the best way to get there. In my case, I didn't really have a concrete grasp on what I wanted to do before I enrolled. I hopped between majors and eventually settled on Psychology, mostly because I had enough credits to graduate on time. There is a part of me that regrets that choice, part of me wonders what would have happened if I had entered the workforce first, giving myself some time to figure out what I wanted to do.
Recognizing that going to college for college's sake seems like a foolish reason to get into debt. I also have watched people in my life live purposeful lives without a conventional four-year degree on their resume.
I admire my sister-in-law, who recognized that being a stay-at-home mom was her ultimate goal and a completely legitimate and valuable vocation, so she chose not to spend money on a college degree. I look up to my older brother, who realized he preferred to work with his hands and spent a year in trade school before creating a really profitable and rewarding career for himself in a motorcycle plant. And I commend my younger brother, who took some time off while he nailed down exactly what he wanted for the future of his career.
When it comes to helping my daughters reach a decision concerning their education, the choice is ultimately up to them. But as their parent, I will do my best to help them figure out exactly what they hope to accomplish through their education and creatively strategize the best approach for getting to where they want to be.