March 05, 2015

Why I’m Never Going Back

I was crushed when I got a rejection letter from grad program at the University of Michigan. I was 22, had just graduated with my BA in English Lit, and was ready to further my career as a writer by going back to school. 

You can keep laughing, as long as you keep reading. 

Sitting at my desk job, I Googled my favorite writers and looked at their career paths--something it had not occurred to me to do before applying for grad school (more on that later). None of them had gotten advanced degrees, few had degrees in a writing discipline, and many had worked a variety of jobs before truly starting their writing careers at 35, 45, 50, beyond. That was a clue, a peek at a hard truth I didn’t want to acknowledge, and wouldn’t until years later: doctors, lawyers, (some) scientists need higher education. The rest of us don’t.

Duh, you say. One of my biggest failings as a writer is my lack of perception; I see jokes coming, not trains. And like many of my peers, my desire for (and rejection by) school was entirely emotional: I loved school. I loved learning. I loved the buildings, and the books, and the freedom--nay, the expectation--that I would spend my time thinking and opining, and be celebrated for it like a baby approximating words when he speaks. The costs were treated at once as necessary and irrelevant. We were emotionally invested in what we were buying; we paid for the feeling and rationalized the debt, just as we would with our cars and wedding dresses. 

But the passionate creators who saw in-house productions of Beckett on the quad and ripped them apart in the diner afterward had to graduate--and their degrees prepared them for two things: to continue their schooling (and likely teach), or give you a leg up in the job market due to your education. Not your specific degree, necessarily, but at the very least a piece of paper from a university confers an ability to take orders, read, and follow through. Your achievements will be secondary; your interests can be entirely ignored. At this point, you may have reached the tip of the iceberg on the injustice college has done you. For all its faults, I have only one charge against higher education, and it even that only bears half the blame: college  taught us to think, to get the muscle working, but neglects the tendon that pulls it. How to think, initiating the thought process ourselves, is the gap where Sallie Mae has built her estate.

“But my company offered me money to go back to school," you may say. "That’s encouraging me to do what I always wanted!” Well, no. Firstly, many companies are affiliated with the universities offering tuition reimbursement. They’re selling you their own product at a discount, and calling it a perk. Second, they want you to further your skills in order to be more valuable to them--not more valuable as a person. While you can go for any degree or subject you want, the STEM classes are highly encouraged, because they are more marketable. 

Lastly--and perhaps most importantly--no matter what your major, going back to school means you will be taking on more debt. You’re not going to quit your high-paying job after graduation to take an entry-level position in your field unless you’re still in deferment, young, childless, or all three. And if you do leave your job, your company will have a slew of applications for your old job--many of whom are your age and attracted to the posting because it will allow them to go back to school to “do what they really want.” I’m not saying you can’t win, I’m saying that in all instances, who is guaranteed to win? The employer, and the school.

I’m not going to be naive enough to say that schools are failing us. Schools are a business, and their key priority is to make money. I could blame career counselors, those people who should be telling us to find our ideal careers and work backward, not encouraging our ability to take $200 classes on classic literature and assuming we only ever wanted to teach. I won’t, because many such people are employed by the very universities taking our cash, which is at best a conflict of interest, and at worst, a scam. Independent career counselors will be limited to the knowledge and experience you have, meaning the education you have already undertaken, and with their hands tied will likely tell you to return to school, because it’s still considered the magic pill of bettering oneself. Telling you to “Google It,” while exactly the right answer, doesn’t have the same billable hours as flipping through course catalogs--and won’t be as profitable for the system, either.

You may have guessed by now that your best career counselor has been, and always will be, you. 

You want to do what you really want? Do it. Don’t know how? There’s the internet. Go.

[Cost: the Comcast bill you were paying anyway, supplies (if needed), time.]

Your lumps of clay, your abandoned songs, your retouched artwork, the manuscript you will never, ever finish--it may never get graded, never get a gold star. It is gorgeous and worthy because it is something you really wanted. It broke out, and got done. Even if it comes to nothing, does not improve your worth as an employee, does not earn you one additional cent, you are still thousands of dollars up on your investment--which is, and will always be, you.

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