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Higher education, according to a top 10% high school graduate who didn't go, and a soldier who did

Two interviews, one of a potential student who chose not to attend, and one who chose to serve in the U.S Army to be able to afford it.

Photo of Deepak Patel
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The young man in white is my best friend from middle school, Raul, who graduated high school in the top ten percent, but had to work right out of high school and forgo college because he could not afford it. The second, to the far right, is Dillon, who decided to join the army in order to be able to afford higher education. I asked them their views on their choices, and the affordability of higher education. 


We'll start with Raul.

Raul is currently working to get his basic credits and try to explore his options. He has taken an interest in architecture. I asked him why he chose not to go to college straight out of high school, since he graduated in the top ten percent, and in Texas that guarantees his acceptance into several public institutions.

Raul: 'I have 5 brothers and sisters living at home, and my mother died years ago, so there just was no money for college. I had to get a job. And I did not have a car, a phone, a computer or any of the basic necessities for higher education. I knew without those things it would be a struggle. So I chose to work instead. It was because of the cost. I could have gone to a cheaper community college, like I am doing now, but I decided to focus on helping my house first. '

I then asked why he decided to now start attending college. It has been 4 years since he graduated high school. He goes part-time to a community college, and works full time as well as helping his father with his own small business.

Raul: 'I have a car now, I have a phone and laptop that I was able to pay for. So again, it was the money. I have the money to pay for part-time classes. I've been working 4 years and I've moved up somewhat, but I still have very little left over to save. So I realized I could only get farther with a college degree. I didn't want to be stuck living paycheck to paycheck my whole life. '

I asked him his views of higher education overall. 

Raul: 'I find that higher-income people have an easier time at college. It makes sense, because they aren't worried about the cost. They can afford the books and all that. They can afford to not work while going to school, if their parents are paying. And they can party, have fun and meet friends. I haven't made any friends at all. Actually I guess it's true that life overall is easier for wealthy people (he laughs). I think higher education is becoming too costly, and becoming more of a luxury. It's funny, because older people I've talk to say things like 'I worked my way through college', or 'my parents didn't pay for me, I had a job'. I don' t think they realize that the dollar in 1980 was so much stronger, more than 5X, than it is today. And college cost something like $15k for 4 years? And minimum wage has risen, what, $5 the last 20 years? I don't know the exact numbers (laughs again). I think education isn't seen as an important thing to American people. How do we pay teachers? I would like to know why when funding for education is discussed, there is an overwhelmingly angry reaction. Will it really raise taxes on us that much? Are people unable to afford it just because they're lazy and don't want to get a job at the same time? I don't think so.'


Now for Dillon's responses. 

I asked Dillon several questions regarding the cost of higher education, and he decided to think about it and send me his response later. This is what he wrote:

Dillon: The cost of education is completely outpacing inflation, as described here: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2014-11-13/college-tuition-in-the-u-s-again-rises-faster-than-inflation.

On top of that federal aid is allowing larger populations of students to attend university. Thus, more competition for post graduates, making a bachelors degree much less valuable even though it costs more to attain it. See: http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/tomorrows-college/dropouts/value-of-college-degree.html.

Is it a bad thing that more people can attend college? Not completely, but with growing student loan debts for students coupled with the inability to monetize their degree to the same extent as previous generations, it leaves many post graduates in a dire financial straights right out of college.

It's impact has been a hefty one to say the least. Even after financial assistance from my US Army benefits, I am left with a substantial monthly payment for student loans. I couldn't imagine what other post graduates must go through trying to pay back tens of thousands of dollars in debt that is only compounding interest as time goes on.

Joining the Army and gaining financial benefits from my service was a great decision. It made college attainable and affordable for me. I also believe when you are footing the bill for your own degree you come to appreciate and understand the value of your education.

A college education is frankly not as valuable as it used to be. We are paying more and more every year for an education that becomes less and less valuable. It is less valuable because as technology progresses human capital becomes less important. I know this because I work in IT sales and sell programs to companies frequently that are meant to replace people. Not just unskilled labor, but skilled labor as well. Refer to this video and it makes even clearer the dismal truth, that a college degree, especially a bachelor's degree, just doesn't take you as far as it used to. (the video he was referring to: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pq-S557XQU)

Example: You are a business owner with four college educated HR employees. Each receives between $45k - $60k a year in salary. This means every year you are paying somewhere in the ballpark of $200k a year. A new HR management program comes out for an annual cost of $15K a year that enables you to downsize to only one HR employee. At the very worst you just cut your annual cost in salary down to $75k from about $200k. You are now saving $125k per year. Is it the 3 unlucky employees fault they no longer have jobs?

Ivy league schools are definitely not included in that statement, though. The unfortunate truth is that the very best educations by a great majority go to students who come from wealth. They are not only able to afford the education, they are far better prepared to attend these schools due to many different social and economic circumstances prior to attending a university. Wealthy students are afforded more options to succeed and given more leeway to make mistakes. They live in more affluent areas where they get better educations and are far more prepared to get into and succeed in top universities.

Perhaps not a resource, but I wish I had been more social while in college. Having a large social base is extremely important post graduation. If you have a large group of friends who see you like you and can confidently endorse you, your chances of landing a job increase significantly. Who you know and have gained the trust of is very important.

I believe higher education for public schools should be further funded by the by the government, and the cost reduced. It is standard in a large majority of developed nations. I have served and worked for the government, and I am aware of how much we spend on defense. If I know these facts, and support it, I cannot see why others are so against reallocating even a fraction of this to education. 

What is a provocation or insight that might inspire others during this challenge?

Is the high cost of college the only reason people can't afford it? Why has it increased so much, when the minimum wage and average salary has not?

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Photo of Andy Ly

Thanks for sharing their stories with us, Deepak! The different approaches that they have taken are inspiring and shows us just how important the current state of the economy plays in our perception of the affordability of a college education.

Photo of Deepak Patel

Thanks for taking the time to read it Andy! I saw your own contribution as well, about graduating debt-free. I think it is worth thinking about why some people, like you, can plan and succeed in gathering the necessities for affording education debt-free, while many others in the same situation can not. You are a success story, and hopefully one that inspires others!