Is College Worth It? Lessons From Gen X

Ginger Abbot

Feb 23, 2023
is college worth it essay

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If you’re in high school, you may wonder “Is college worth it?” For years, teachers gave students the same advice: If you want an “easy” job that pays well and doesn’t leave your body broken by age 40, you should go to college. Considering that 65% of job listings include postsecondary education in their prerequisite list, many still assume that wisdom is sage. 

As a former teacher with an advanced degree, I see the world differently. First of all, let me set the record straight: I’m not writing this article to convince you which life path is best. You are ultimately the best judge of that. However, I seek to share my experiences as someone who would have made far different choices when young had I known then what I do now. 

If you’re on the fence about going to school, you should seek all the information from as many diverse sources as possible. Is college worth it? Here are the lessons this Gen-Xer has learned in one essay. 

It Opens Doors 

A college degree opens doors. I began my career as a teacher, which decidedly required higher education, although that’s becoming less of the norm in some states. Ongoing shortages have spurred some governments to change emergency certification requirements, even allowing non-degreed individuals with certain qualifications to apply. 

The work I do now doesn’t necessarily require a degree — but I probably never would have landed my current role without one. Why? The answer in one phrase is modern ATS systems. Unless your qualifications match those listed on the online ad, your resume will never appear before a hiring manager’s eyes, much less net you an interview. You’re out of the race before the starting pistol fires. 

I don’t know why some positions, like administrative assistant, require postsecondary degrees. I’ve held several such roles and honestly, I could have done just fine fresh out of sixth grade. However, I can’t change how businesses run, and employers have the right to set whatever qualifications they like when seeking applicants. Make no mistake — a degree in just about any field will help you land work. 

I would advise checking out the low end of the pay scale for your desired profession before declaring a major, however. When you do, turn to reputable sources, such as current online job listings. Universities are notorious for inflating average salary estimates; students suffer from this subtle gaslighting. Many current students believe they’ll earn over six figures out of the gate, when the reality is likely a good $50,000 less. Will your potential wages justify taking on debt? 

And the Debt Lingers 

Why do I mention debt? It’s because the average college student today graduates with approximately $30,000 in it. Maybe that doesn’t sound too bad — until you factor in interest. 

When asking yourself, “Is college worth it,” consider that what hinders you financially is the hit you keep taking, month after month, long after graduation. Programs like income-based repayment make student loans seem no big deal — until you realize the interest continues to accrue on the original debt. Since enrolling in this program, I’ve added nearly $40,000 to my initial load, more than triple the principal amount borrowed for undergrad. 

I’ve had other life situations that have impacted my earning ability — more on that in a second. However, the bottom line is that you can’t bank on getting a high-enough paying job to manage monthly rent payments, insurance, food, child care and utilities, bills many people struggle to pay today even without student loan debt. 

Then, just when you think your life will improve with higher income, your need to repay comes back with a vengeance. It hinders your later life choices more than you know. For example, I’ve walked this earth for over half a century now — and, barring a winning lottery ticket or similar miracle, I will die in debt. 

My student loans have precluded me from ever buying a home or starting a family. I’m not saying that to complain — hey, it’s my reality. However, I wish someone would have warned 17-year-old me that gambling on being able to pay my borrowed college money back someday would mean sacrificing a lot more than extra spending cash. 

You Don’t Know What Life Will Throw at You

I’ll admit that part of my problem was getting too sick too young. I had a lifelong undiagnosed heart condition compounded by a car wreck when I was just shy of my 18th birthday. By the time I was 35, I was, for all intents and purposes, unable to work outside of the home, severely restricting my income-earning potential. 

Nowadays, telework is more the norm, thanks to the pandemic. That wasn’t always the case. For years, I struggled as a work-from-home teacher, trying to treat my health conditions cheaply by crossing the border into Mexico — adjuncts don’t get benefits. In desperation, I’ll admit, I made a fatal mistake. I went back to school to train for a different career, one where I could hopefully support myself from home. 

Unfortunately, I suffered another brain injury soon after my first year of graduate school. Unable to do the work, I somehow limped across the finish line, earning my degree. However, every attempt to labor in my field was met with a pink slip. It’s rather hard to practice accounting when you can no longer add two plus two. 

I share this not to garner sympathy — again, my life is what it is, and I have enough joy in it that I feel happiness daily. It’s pretty good at the moment, even if it’s not all I dreamed it would be. However, do I wish someone would have told 17-year-old me that life is unpredictable instead of making going to college seem like the only rational thing to do? Yes. 

The Bottom Line: Get Money-Wise First 

I can’t tell you if college is worth it for your unique situation. Everyone is different. What I do know is I was handed a faulty bill of sale at my high school graduation. I was promised — at 17 — if you do this, you’ll get that. There was no mention of things going awry. I now know better, which is why I’m writing this article. 

I wish someone would have explained the financial ramifications of taking out student debt to me. How I yearn for a time machine so I could work for a while first, then make an informed decision.

I earn roughly the same today as I brought in at many of the jobs I worked through school. I’d still be struggling had I not gone to college — but at least I wouldn’t be drowning in debt. 

My best advice? Unless your parents can afford to pay or you earn a scholarship that covers your tuition, don’t consider college your only route into adulthood. 

Get money-wise first. Sit down and run the numbers and be conservative with your approach. Factor in the unknowns — are you willing to accept that life may not go as planned? It’s okay to roll the dice, but it should be an informed decision, not a choice you feel coerced into.

Trust me, as a former teacher, it breaks my heart to say that college simply isn’t worth it for many. I hate saying it because I believe that education is the key to humanity’s future. It shouldn’t be a luxury reserved for the elite; it should be free and accessible to everyone. However, that’s not the world we inhabit. The sad reality is, in a capitalistic society, you have to look out for your finances before education.

There are plenty of positive stories about kids who grew up poor achieving enormous success after attending college. However, those folks whose stories didn’t turn out so rosy rarely get much press. You should know both sides of the coin before making a decision that could affect your entire financial future. 

Is College Worth It?

Is college worth it? Only you can say for sure. I hope what I’ve written here enlightens you, not discourages you. It’s better to take a risk when you know what you stand instead of rash decision and live with regret. 

I didn’t write this “Is college worth it” essay to dissuade you. In my heart, I believe college is worth it for everyone. However, reality tells me it might not be the right choice under current circumstances. Perhaps in the future, we will have a nation where you don’t have to fear a lifetime of college debt. In the meantime, choose wisely. 

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