Is College Worth the Cost?
In a word, no.
I remember the day I ripped my college diploma to shreds. It had been two years since I graduated with my second degree in Advertising/Public Relations, and I was still working at a crappy, low-paying retail job. You know, the kind you might see in an advertisement by the Arkansas Department of Higher Education? Maybe you’ve seen that ad where the guy in a suit walks into a store to buy an expensive laptop, and the guy behind the counter is also him, because “A college education can mean the difference between doing what you want to do and doing what you have to do.”
I think it was maybe the thousandth time I’d seen that ad, and I just snapped. I had spent thousands of dollars, working two jobs and selling stuff on eBay, to pay for my second degree. (My first, in Broadcast Journalism, was worth about as much as a four-dollar bill. Yes, I got a job, but it paid less than my crappy retail job, and I was still broke despite working both places.)
Reasons Why College Isn’t Worth the Cost
There are, in fact, lots of jobs in this field, including where I live, and the median salary is a lot higher than it is for journalists. However, the fact that there are jobs open doesn’t mean you can get one. Every time I applied for a job, I received a rejection letter stating the company was “looking for someone with more experience.”
I mean, experience is great. You know how you get experience? Someone gives you a chance when you don’t have any.
One former professor tried to help by forwarding me a message from another of his previous students. She said her agency had a job opening that was “perfect for a recent graduate.” I thanked him for the suggestion and rushed to apply for the position.
Because I always read things carefully, it didn’t take me long to figure out this was another dead end. The job description for this “entry level” position required TWO YEARS EXPERIENCE IN THE FIELD. Yeah, that’s a great entry-level job perfect for a recent graduate. I applied anyway, but wasn’t surprised when I received yet another rejection letter.
Since experience was the problem, I also applied for various unpaid internships, but was repeatedly told, “We can only hire students for legal reasons.” (Yes, I applied for internships while a student, but so did everyone else, and as usual I was never quite good enough. Of course, I was also working two jobs to pay for school and really didn’t have 25 hours a week to work for free anyway.)
Eventually I was able to find a “marketing” position at a very small local business. It paid the same as what I made at my retail job, and I had to keep working there on the weekends, but at least it would look like marketing experience on my resume if I could just stay there a year or so.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. I did my best, but the store owner was in need of some sort of professional help. She seemed to be manic 100% of the time, changing her mind about what she wanted so frequently I could never finish a task before she wanted something different. One day she made me change the prices on the website twenty times because first she wanted a sale, then she didn’t want to lose money, then she wanted the sale again, then she wanted the sale but only if the customer had a coupon and with a “request coupon” button on the site, then she didn’t want to put anything on sale at all, then she did, then she didn’t…
She also had bill collectors calling constantly. After a couple months, she had to leave town abruptly because she couldn’t pay her rent on the building she was in. I was relieved, but disappointed that I only had two months of experience. I went back to applying at the same places I had tried before, and the rejection letters poured back in.
One of those places was the university from which I earned my degree. Apparently, they don’t think their education prepares their students for a real job, because they don’t want anything to do with you without a year of experience. (They never seem to mention that in their ads though…) The worst part, however, is the manner in which they reject applicants.
Here’s the thing. I’ve explained in previous posts that nothing really makes a rejection letter better, but there are things you can do to make it much, much, much worse. My former school is guilty of a serious infraction on that list: Making it clear they never read your resume or cover letter.
Now, I get it, a large institution like that probably receives dozens, if not hundreds of applications for many of their positions. I don’t blame the HR staff for not reading every application or letting a computer program weed out unqualified applicants. But if you’re going to do that, you should send a boilerplate “Thanks for applying but we’re pursuing other candidates” type letter. You should NOT make it obvious beyond a shadow of a doubt that no human being so much as scanned an applicant’s resume or cover letter before round-filing it.
Unfortunately, this esteemed institution rejects everyone it doesn’t want to hire by saying, “You do not meet the minimum qualifications for this position.” Which is fine if it’s true, and for some of the jobs I applied for, sure, it was. But I also found some positions I was actually qualified for, some of which I was even overqualified for—many didn’t even require a college degree. Guess what? I got the exact same rejection letter even though I did, in fact, meet the minimum qualifications for those jobs.
I then started spelling out how I met the qualifications in the first sentence of my cover letter, knowing the HR department probably didn’t have time to read the whole thing, and soon learned they didn’t read so much as the first sentence, either.
Again, I get that they might not have had time to even skim all the cover letters. But sending a rejection letter that makes it obvious you didn’t even spend one second considering the applicant before hiring the football coach’s girlfriend (an actual situation that happened once at this particular school, after which the university settled out of court) is bad PR. That’s something I could tell them if they’d hire me to work in their PR department, but of course they don’t even read my applications, so I guess they’re going to continue to make themselves look bad.
It was after one of those I-didn’t-read-your-application-because-I-don’t-give-a-shit letters that I got angry and decided to shred my diploma. I tore through drawers until I got my hands on it, a rolled up tube of cheap paper. Because I declined to purchase the university’s recommended $150 frame, there was nothing stopping me from tearing it into the tiniest pieces I could with my fingers. I may not be a Swingline shredder, but I made confetti of that thing.
And it made me feel a lot better, until every piece had been ripped until it couldn’t be ripped anymore. Then I felt let down. I was still angry, and there was nothing left to shred. I considered setting fire to the tiny pieces, but the trash can was plastic and I didn’t want to spend money on a new one because I was working for $8.50 an hour. So then I just felt angry that there was nothing more I could do to damage that stupid, worthless diploma.
Why I Regret Going to College
Before you tell me that it’s just me, I should point out the majority of people I graduated with in 2012 experienced the same thing. Only one or two are actually working in their field of study. Most, like me, are unemployed or underemployed. (I had a decent, quasi-related job for six months before I was fired for no apparent reason in February of this year, when I strongly suspect I was replaced by a $10/hr intern. That was the only period in my life as a college graduate when I was not underemployed.)
But, back to my fellow graduates. One of them wound up working at a clothing store in the mall, despite having done multiple internships in school. One is stocking the dairy case at Walmart. Another stands on a street corner with a “cash for gold” sign. One sells some sort of overpriced weight loss product by hawking it on Facebook. Others are working in retail, living with parents (something I am sadly forced to do myself), and donating bodily fluids for money (I would, but I hate needles). When I worked a $10/hr temp job at the university last summer, almost every temp worker there had a degree from the school—and was working for ten bucks an hour because nothing else was available.
Of course, because I went to college, I know how to calculate an ROI, and I can tell you that my college education has a HUGE, negative ROI. Because I know how to read, I can tell you I’m not the only person who’s wasted money on college—student loan debt keeps rising, as does the cost of a college education.
My school, by the way, promised students in the Ad/PR program their degrees would be “valuable to employers” because of the university’s “high standards.” Those included requiring students to earn a B or better in two classes before they could move on to the final sequence of classes before graduation. Now, these aren’t tough classes, and they don’t require a lot of math. I found it easy to make an A in both of them. There really are no standards, and employers don’t give a shit about your degree when you graduate, or the requirements to get one.
And why should they? Let’s be honest, the only entrance exam to get into college these days is “Can you sign your name on a check to the school?” I know people who got in with a 19 on the ACT. (The highest score you can get is 36; if it were a pass/fail exam, that would be a failing grade.) I know others who can’t spell at a fifth grade level, but they not only got into college, they also somehow graduated. (One even taught creative writing at my university. She used to spell words wrong on the whiteboard, which apparently counts as “creative” these days.)
So Is College Worth It?
Still no. No, no, no.
Personally, I think colleges should be required to provide a money-back guarantee to students who are unable to find work in their field after graduating. What do you think? Should schools be held accountable for encouraging students to get in debt for what may very well be a worthless piece of paper?
W. T. Fallon is the author of Fail to the Chief, a political satire in which the presidential election is carried out via reality show, which is almost as bizarre and far-fetched as our current reality.