Monday, October 25, 2010

Getting An Education Without Breaking the Bank (or Your Mother's Heart)

Today, I read an article by Arielle Loren that challenges the notion that we should all go to graduate school. "Debt and Success: Why I Said NO to Graduate School" seems geared towards those who come from a middle to upper-middle class background, so someone outside of that economic bracket might not find it very useful.

If you don't have parents who were able to finish high school, they may not have the same expectations for you as those who were privileged enough to go beyond that. If your parents can't afford to help you finance college and/or you don't qualify for scholarships and grants (because Congress still hasn't passed the DREAM ACT), then this article might not be relevant in your life. There is a fair amount of privilege associated with being someone that this article is really geared to and I think that should be acknowledged up front. If anyone who reads this knows of any links that provide advice to those potential students who are less privileged, please share them with me and I will add them to this post.

Like Loren, I also come from a long line of college graduates and folks with advanced degrees. This idea that everyone in the family should take this route is definitely a reflection of the values of bourgeoisie black society. At this point in our family history, going to college just isn't all that extraordinary. Receiving a full scholarship or graduating in less than four years is still considered brag-worthy (even though you won't be the first one to do it), but my relatives unquestioningly assume that everyone will go to college.

Through a combination of scholarships and grants, my husband and I both left college with almost no debt. As a result, we were able to purchase a home without having to take out a mortgage (If you've been saving your money for a while, this can be an excellent time to buy a house). We now have a teenager and, as I've talked about before, VanGoghGirl goes to a really prestigious high school where the administration bragged during Orientation about how 99% of their students went on to a university after graduation. The school is set up so that everyone will have plenty of "extra-curricular" activities to put on their college applications. For example, all students are required to join at least three clubs.

Because it is almost a certainty that VanGoghGirl will go to college, we've been teaching her how to make smart educational decisions as she plans for her future. Next year, she may start taking classes at one of the local universities, so that when she graduates high school she will at least have some of her first semester classes already under her belt. If she decides to enroll in a state school after she graduates from high school, she won't have any problems with transferring the credits she'll have earned. All of the graduates from her high school qualify for a program that Louisiana has that pays for all of a student's tuition to a state school for four years. That has proven to be a powerful incentive for my daughter.

Personally, I think it's better to go to a cheap(er) university for your undergraduate program. Having studied at top tier and state schools, I can say for a certainty that there isn't much of a difference between what you will learn at the undergraduate level. Besides, many states now offer programs where tuition is much lower or even free for students from that area. Many students get caught up in the hype and become totally star-struck when an expensive school accepts them. They and their families go into debt needlessly, with very little added benefit.

The smarter thing to do is to save your finances for a better graduate school. When it comes to education, employers seem to care more about where you ended up than they do about where you started out. I know sooo many people who were able to pull together financing for a top tier school for a couple of years, but finally realized that it wasn't going to be possible or practical for them to continue to do so. Having to go home and attend a less prestigious school can often feel like defeat.

If you start out at a state school and then move on to a more prestigious graduate school, you can have the best of both worlds. By staying at home for a few more years, my daughter can do all of the traveling she wants over the summers, without worrying about how she's going to pay for housing and meal plans and tuition during the rest of the year. I think this is the best route for those who know they will need or want or be expected to go to graduate school at some point. If it turns out that you don't need to go to graduate school, you can start your career without the debt that forces many people to take jobs that will enable them to start paying off their loans, but won't further their career one bit.

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