I was inspired by the following cartoon (click image or this link). I hated student loans. I have slain them.
In a flurry of tapping keys I wrote long and bitterly. Find a teenager and make them read my post. Possibly tattoo it on their ass.
Recently I was talking with some kids and I realized every damn thing adults had told them about college was bullshit. I thought about my youth, had it happened to me? Yes! Yes it had! By God everything I was told about college was bullshit!* Here (in no particular order) are some sage bits of advice I wish I’d received:
- “Work your way through” is dead: Grandpa paid his way through college? Good for him. It won’t happen for you. People who told me I could “work my way through college” were myopic assholes who didn’t realize times had changed. It’s currently impossible because the endless flood of government loans inflates tuition while a recent high school graduate’s labor remains roughly worthless. Young adults don’t earn enough to pay in real time for a university any more than they can fund a Lamborghini. Grandpa is recalling a financial picture that’s dead and if he persists have him put in a home.**
- You may discover that you’re poor: High school seniors and helicopter parents page through lists of “best colleges” like it’s magic. Bullshit! When I went to college I discovered, shockingly, I was poor. I was from a poor town, in a poor county, with a poor background, and my statistically likely lifetime earnings was less than it might otherwise be if I’d been vacationing in Kennebunkport with the Bush family. Who knew? What that means to a high school senior is that the U.S. News and World Report College Rankings is likely to point toward colleges that might very well never pay off. Mimsy Rockefeller and her fellow Harvard legacy program upper class twits have financial calculations that are different than yours. Unless your dad is a senator that owns a yacht, you need to focus on the mundane. College is for an education, so you can get a decent job, so you can avoid spending your life freaking out over the electric bill. If you made it all the way to teenager without discovering life ‘aint fair, you might as well know now.
- It’s OK to sample the real world: I was told I must go to college immediately. Once I’d tasted post high school freedom I’d never drag myself back into a classroom. I might “fall through the cracks”. I accepted this at face value and hustled into college. In retrospect I’d received terrible advice. Suppose I’d stumbled across a sufficient living doing something like trucking or welding or scrubbing bedpans or whatever? To an educator that’s “fell through the cracks”. Fuck them! It’s a reasonable life path. If you find something better than a McJob and it makes you happy, why prostrate yourself before the tuition bills of college? Because you’d disappoint your high school English lit teacher? Is that a good reason do do anything? If you’re self supporting and happy, enjoy it. Raise a family, see the Grand Canyon, train a dog. Forget the eggheads. Conversely if your foray into the real world is nothing more than a series of demeaning shit jobs and grinding poverty you’ve received nature’s hint to better oneself. You’ll hit the books with a lean and hungry motivation you heretofore lacked. You might want to find out if the real world truly sucks before you hand over fifty grand (at least!) to briefly flee it.
- Getting accepted to a college is not the big deal you think it is: Paying for college is a big deal. Getting accepted is not. You’re dancing because you got a letter that they’ll lower themselves all the way down to your level and deign to take your filthy money? Whoopty shit! It’s your money. Those bastards work for you. Go where you belong and don’t be impressed by a letterhead and a fancy name. Another crop of high schoolers graduates every year and Yale can live without you more than you can afford to pay for Yale.
- The opportunity cost of earning nothing is huge: Imagine you skip college and get a shit job… say minimum wage floor mopping. Unless you’re a drooling moron you’ll earn $15,000+/- a year; which sucks. Compare that to a kid who takes five years inching through a Bachelor’s program. When you’re both age 25 you’ve skated by on the dull end of a mop while he’s been cribbing book reports from the internet and pulling all nighters. Shockingly, you’re ahead by $75,000! Imagine that! College kid hasn’t made dime one and racked up God knows how much in loans. You (presumably) have used your time to land an apartment and a life and maybe a second hand car that runs and maybe you’re chief executive mop pusher (which is still a shit job but slightly better than ground zero). It’s going to take college kid years and years to make up for all that time earning zero. You’re going to be pissed off when he’s hired to be your assistant mop pusher and you discover he can’t even do that right. Eventually, maybe, if he’s lucky, he might possibly surpass your lowly shit job. Or he might not. Doctors, surgeons, lawyers, and engineers will catch up and blow past. Even then it’s not a big money dump, expect a gradual crossover in your late 40’s or 50’s of age. Often college kid will never surpass the several years of job abstinence if he picked majors poorly. Even for the high fliers, it’s not uncommon to see a 40 year old surgeon who’s been working like a dog forever and is currently poorer than dirt. Every moment you’re in college you’d better be learning your ass off because you’re earning squat.
- Teachers are a bad example: I grew up in Bumfuck nowhere. Teachers (and oddly the veterinarian) were the only “educated people” I knew. I assumed they had unusually wise counsel. Was I an idiot or what? The common way to become a high school teacher is to take out largish student loans and forgo four years or more of work to land a modest paying job. Yee haw that’s a barn burning great idea. For a truer view of the job benefits of college you should talk to other college educated people; accountants, surveyors, pharmacists, meteorologists, or whomever you can find.
- College without a return on investment is just mental masturbation: It feels good but you’re not accomplishing much. Ask adults about college. Your first question should be what was their return on investment from their personal choices in education. If they spout something about “making friends” and “life experience” immediately ignore anything else they say… on any subject… ever. You might want to key their car and kick their dog while you’re at it. If they say something like “I paid off my loans and now make $X more than I otherwise would have earned” listen to them because they have valuable knowledge.
- You probably don’t need education at the foot of the masters: You are not on a Kung Fu journey of enlightenment. An expensive college theoretically has better professors but a recent high school graduate isn’t ready for that depth of study. It may be wise to start somewhere cheap and knock out a wad of college credits. Later, if you merit it and you want to, you can always transfer those cheap credits to the overpriced land of braniacs. Hint: what’s the difference between 3 credits in Freshman Literature at a community college versus MIT? Answer: The cost of a used Honda and nothing else.
- If all you want is an easy “A” then drop out: I can write “A” on a piece of paper and charge you sixty grand. Is that what you want? Will that validate your feelings that you’re an extra special snowflake of awesomeness? Student loans make for a very expensive form of external validation. Don’t pay for any education that exists to expand your self esteem. It’s unearned and therefore false.
- If you’re going to college to avoid getting a job stop it this very instant: There’s an easy way to avoid getting a job. Don’t get one. Sit on your ass, go fishing, get drunk, play Nintendo, watch TV. I don’t care. You can waste time for free. Dropping huge bucks on a college to justify doing nothing is the absolute most expensive nothing you’ll ever buy.
- If you drop out of college, get a job: Any job will do. Don’t whine to me that you can’t find a job. You just can’t find a job you like. This is nature’s way of telling you to either lower your expectations or improve yourself. Either solution will work.
- If you don’t get a paycheck, it’s not a job and you probably shouldn’t do it: If someone looks you in the eye and says the following: “This volunteer opportunity / internship will increase your job prospects” you’re getting hosed. Translation? You’re majoring in something that doesn’t merit a salary and the job prospects suck. Why in God’s name would you pay a college to teach you a skill that idiots will do for free? Furthermore why would you be that idiot? You should limit your lifetime intake of working for free to as little as possible. Like none. God has a word for time you spend not getting paid, it’s called leisure. If they don’t offer cash, go fishing instead. Fuck them.
- Nobody gives a shit about sports: Once you’re about twenty three you’ll realize sports are games. Aside from Lebron James and Nike nobody makes money playing games. Don’t piss your education time away at a game.
- Life is hard, go for the kill: In every college group there are a few real winners and a herd of undifferentiated scrum. If you’re the scrum either work hard to rise or you’re probably not going to get a big bang for the buck for your tuition. What I’m suggesting is not so hard. It’s college, have you seen how dumb your fellow students are? Suck it up and study. If not you’re just buying a credential. There are exemptions. If you’re the last native English speaker in Advanced Calculus amid fifty South Korean prodigies, perhaps average is indeed excellent.
- Education is best used to prepare you to do things of value: Look at civilization. Notice that we’re not living in mud huts and starving to death? Huzzah! That’s because smart people make engines run and sewers operate and keep the lights on and deliver the friggin’ corn flakes. If they go away we’re all screwed. The economy rewards them with money. Notice what I didn’t mention? If everyone who can deconstruct Descartes suddenly vanished, nobody would give a shit. The economy doesn’t reward those people so they do things like protest and/or talk to their cat. Your future salary will reflect how much you’ll be needed during the zombie apocalypse. Your college choices should too.
- Servants are expensive: Imagine someone really rich. Daddy Warbucks and his 1% cronies are sitting around ruling the world. How awesome is that lifestyle? Someone cooks their dinner, someone mows their lawn, someone maintains their house. If you’re a college student in a dorm with a meal plan you’ve got the same servants as Daddy Warbucks but you’re paying for it with loans. The cafeteria cooks your food so you can show up in your jammies for a late breakfast. Really? Rich senators and brilliant brain surgeons have to cook their own meals. Your parents don’t have servants. That’s how the economy sorts itself out. If your personal claim to fame is a B in Freshman lit and you have servants cooking you breakfast is it any wonder your student loans spiral to infinity? Every inch of lifestyle beyond hunkering in a box under a bridge is banking on you being awesome after college and it’s not without risk.
- Student Loans are deadly serious, like owing Tony Soprano: If you buy a house or car you can’t afford you’ve got an asset that partially offsets your mistake. Maybe you can sell the car or house and get out from under it. Failing that you might faceplant into bankruptcy. Either way you’ve got a fair chance to emerge in one fiscal piece. Nothing, not God himself, can save you from Student Loans. This is serious, Congress wrote special laws just for student loans specifically for the purpose of hounding you to hell and back. They’ll never ever quit. When you die the IRS will dig up your corpse and sodomize it with a student loan bill. Loans might be unavoidable but picture Tony Soprano with an ice pick every time you sign a student loan. Frankly the mob is probably a lot more reasonable than the IRS.
I’ve said a lot of negative things about college. I’m not worried that I’ve gone overboard. American kids are steeped in bullshit about the value of education starting when they’re a wee tadpole in pre-school and ending when they’ve got a half million sunk into a PhD in puppetry. There’s plenty of room for counterbalancing. Now I’m going to say two positive things about college. TWO. That’s all the positive you’ll get.
- It’s OK to go for it: Are you lean and hungry? Do you want to hone your mind like a weapon? Do you want to get in there and outshine your intellectual competition and be better, faster, stronger, than all of them? Do you love it when they grade on a curve? Do you wreck the curve for everyone else? Do you think it’s funny when you do it? Will you hit the job market like a friggin tornado the instant finals are done? Can you back your shit up with hard work and a steely eyed resolve. Do you think sleep is for pussies? Do you think a 40 hour work week is laughable and luxuries like taking a relaxed crap on Saturdays and seeing the sun during the month of finals is excessive? Under those circumstances and only those circumstances college might, just maybe, pay off handsomely. Go ahead and take modest student loans, the smallest you can possibly bear. Use the investment to venture into the den of iniquity that is college with the intention of getting right back out as quickly and efficiently as possible.
- Intelligence is desirable: There is nothing particularly noble about stupidity. The human mind is what separates us from the apes and if you wish to use it, to really push the boundaries and develop that incredible organ between your ears, then college is one place among many where you may seek it’s fullest potential. This doesn’t mean pissing away a zillion dollars that you’ll never earn back. It means you can use that evolved monkey brain of yours to make college work for you as one path to true intelligence.
* For more non-bullshit advice I’d suggest Aaron Clarey’s Book: Worthless: The Young Person’s Indispensable Guide to Choosing the Right Major.
** Since this is the internet, someone is going to comment that they really did work their way through school without being a coke dealer. Those few are the one in a thousand and usually sixty years old. Don’t bet on it.
*** In the interest of full disclosure I’m not against learning. I went to college(s) just like the rest of the seething throng. The difference is that I saw debt as the enemy and colleges as a drooling beast to be harnessed for my purposes. When I think of my alma mater(s) I smile and think “I made that bitch do my bidding”. Kids and their helicopter parents won’t read about that in U.S. News and World Report College Rankings.