Is College Really Right For Everyone?

Contrary to popular belief there is a way to get through college without debt!

Happy #finhealthmatters day, everyone! To celebrate this exciting holiday (I’ll take #finhealthmatters day ANYTIME over Valentines, or Halloween or exhausting, mom-driven, candy fest) I’m reflecting on the cost of college and how it impacts our life. And how it DID impact my life. 

Financial Health is one of those “ideas” that comes with a lot of baggage – formulas, definitions, judgments. As is so often the case for things in life that are loaded and heavy, I think there is another way to see it; one that centers on awareness and intention rather than the weight and charge of expectation. And, I’m convinced that it’s not only possible, but critical to make this shift early.

I’m 40 now, and at age 31 my husband and I were drowning in student loan debt. Together we had racked up a $100,000 tab that came with a monthly payment of $900! While we do have an amazing debt payoff story, I wonder what would have happened had we heard an alternative narrative to the traditional “you go to college when you finish high school if you want to do something with your life, or be someone in society!” It was, and is, the line of the times – the only way to proceed through a meaningful life was to follow the yellow brick road to the Oz of a 4-year degree.

AS I CONSIDERED COLLEGES, THE ONLY QUESTION I ASKED WAS “IS THIS THE RIGHT SCHOOL FOR ME?”

There wasn’t any discussion about cost or how can I get through college without debt. Despite the fact that my top choice was a private school and we were a struggling middle class family with loads of debt AND my parents were on the verge of a divorce that would eventually come during my junior year in college.

I was the first to go to college among my siblings, and the first to eventually graduate. I’m the middle of three kids, the child of a mother who went to two years of college but didn’t graduate, and a step father that did pursue higher education.

You probably get what’s coming next, right?

My family was VERY excited that I was pursuing higher education. No matter what the cost. If you want to be someone, you need to go to college, right?! It’s the only way to achieve financial health.

Looking back now, I’m not so sure.

FINANCIAL HEALTH MATTERS

I KNOW – IN THE DEEPEST OF MY BONES – THAT LIVING A LIFE OF FINANCIAL HEALTH IS NOT JUST ABOUT BALANCE SHEETS, TIMELINES AND NORMS; IT’S ABOUT THE AUTHENTIC, HOLISTIC INTEGRATION OF ALL THE PARTS OF LIFE. SOMETIMES (ALWAYS?), THAT MEANS MAKING CHOICES THAT DON’T MAKE SENSE TO OTHERS.

Starting when we decided to pay off all of our $100,000 in student loan debtwe’ve stopped making choices that others see as wise or normal just for the sake of being seen as wise or normal.

It has changed us, and is the most powerful aspect of financial health in our life.

IN THAT LIGHT, I PROPOSE THAT ALL HIGH SCHOOL GRADUATES CONSIDER A “GAP YEAR” BEFORE STARTING ANY HIGHER EDUCATION.

While I didn’t actually do this, looking back I REALLY wish I had. I ended up taking five years to get through my private school, racking up even more debt, all because I switched majors about 500 times. Being 17 when I started school, I had NO CLUE what I wanted to do.

When I graduated, I had a double major in biology and sports medicine. Yeah! Except, I didn’t want to be a personal trainer, or an athletic trainer, or a biologist. So, what did I do? Naturally, I nannied for a year. Then, I worked as a program director at a summer camp. Naturally.

ACCORDING TO THE GAP YEAR ASSOCIATION (YEP, THIS IS A REAL THING!) “A GAP YEAR IS AN EXPERIENTIAL SEMESTER OR YEAR “ON,” TYPICALLY TAKEN BETWEEN HIGH SCHOOL AND COLLEGE IN ORDER TO DEEPEN PRACTICAL, PROFESSIONAL, AND PERSONAL AWARENESS.”

AS ABRAHAM LINCOLN SAID, “I DON’T LIKE THAT MAN. I MUST GET TO KNOW HIM BETTER.”

Understanding where other people live and where they come from, AND understanding where YOU live and where YOU come from will open your mind, expand your world and give you the necessary space to listen to your own voice rather than the clamorous noise of expectation.

There’s a whole page on the Gap Year Association’s site that helps students plan their year in an intentional way, considering what their hopes and purposes actually are for this time between high school and college.

I know you’re thinking “this is going to cost money, how can I actually do something like this?” Well, it might take some creative planning and a bit of funding from your family, but, there are other alternatives as well.

AMERICORPS NCCC

AmeriCorps NCCC is a program specifically made for kids ages 18-24 who have not necessarily gone to college. This article talks about two different experiences with the AmeriCorps NCCC program and how they used working for AmeriCorps as their gap year.

AmeriCorps pays a living stipend and offers a $5000 education award at the completion of the year-long program. Your new stipend can be used on future education costs or put towards student loan debt you might have already amassed.

While I didn’t do the NCCC program, after college and before going to grad school (and after I finished nannying) I did an AmeriCorps program created for college graduates. It was like a delayed Gap Year for me, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. It was eye opening, consciousness expanding, and, full of practical skills that served me (and continue to serve) once I entered the workplace. Skills like being an independent thinker, how to work on a team, what initiative really is and how to serve.

Since that formative year, volunteerism in my life and community is instilled in my bones.

Completing a gap year, whatever it looks like, will provide a greater understanding of the wider external world AND a greater understanding of wider internal world. It will provide awareness and shape the intention that fuels a whole and authentic life, sustainable and satisfying despite its likely contrary tendencies.

Give yourself some space and take a gap year.

“GAP YEAR IS JUST NOT FOR ME”

Oh, and if you’re not into the traveling that you’ll do with NCCC, consider staying home and getting a job. Manual labor would be best.

And if this gap year thing sounds crazy to you, consider community college for a year or two. You’ll get credits for a FRACTION of the cost of other big schools. AND you can transfer to the school of your choice once you actually know what degree you want to pursue!

THE AVERAGE STUDENT LOAN DEBT FOR THE CLASS OF 2016 GRADUATES IS $37,172.

While the data doesn’t exist to support this, I suspect that many of those students are searching and uncertain in the midst of their schooling, marching onward into Salie Mae’s arms without intent or direction.

I don’t disagree that the struggle of finding yourself in college is important work, I just challenge the party line that says that work should be done while paying tuition at an expensive school. There are options and opportunities to go through college without debt! 

LET’S CHANGE THE NARRATIVE FRIENDS. TAKE A LESSON FROM SOMEONE WHO WENT BEFORE YOU, YOUR FUTURE FINANCIAL HEALTH AND HAPPINESS WILL DEPEND ON THE CHOICES YOU MAKE RIGHT NOW!

Financial health and happiness is intertwined in ALL your other happiness.

I’m always rooting for you! No matter what you choose!

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FinanceOlivia Zurawski