Emily Articulated: To college or not to college

By Emily Erickson
Reader Columnist

I stomped with clamped fists up the steps to my college’s main hall, rain pattering my head to match my mood. My stomach flipped as I attempted to steady my breathing, blasting through the door before I could stop myself. I was going to drop out of college that day.

Emily Erickson.

Shaking the rain from my hair, I scanned the room. Where does one go to drop out of college? I had visited the financial aid office, the scheduling department and had visited most of the offices in the building in my three tenure, but I’d never needed to “end” my education before. And it’s not like there were signs reading, “So you think you don’t need this blasted degree, do you? This way, then.”

Figuring I’d start with the Registrar’s office, I stalked up to the desk and blurted, “I’m looking to drop out of college today. Is this where I go?” as if willing the woman opposite me to try to convince me otherwise (ha!).

She looked at me with curiosity, and said, “You’re in the right place, what’s your name and student ID?”

After taking my information, she scanned my records, my perfect GPA and junior-year status reflecting in her glasses. “So, you’re not dropping out for academic reasons, have you thought this through?”

I had thought it through … well, sort of.

I had determined after my third summer of small-town Alaska living that there were so many opportunities that existed beyond the jobs for which a college degree was necessary, and that those degree-required jobs would be the death of me, anyhow. A cubicle corner for barely-above minimum wage, with aspirations at a window? And $40,000 of debt to get there? No thank you.

Instead of spending another year of my life working toward something I’d never use and acquiring more debt along the way, I wanted to end it; to rip it off like the band aid that was the conventional path I’d been fooled to follow.

After three mandatory counseling sessions and a slew of signed papers, I was free of my education. I bought plane tickets to the Yukon, to Ireland, and to Bangkok, and felt as if my life was finally beginning.

This decision to forgo higher education is becoming more and more prevalent for young people today. According to the New York Times article, “College May Not be Worth it Anymore,”  the average amount of student loan debt for a college student is $38,000, despite the fact that “since 2000, the growth in the wage gap between high school and college graduates has slowed to a halt; 25 percent of college graduates now earn no more than does the average high school graduate.” 

In many cases, pursuing higher education just sets people up to be years behind, and paying on debilitating monthly loans that hinder them from participating in those “normal” life events, like purchasing a home, getting married and having kids.

But, despite the scene painted, this is not a column arguing against higher education. I’ve had time to reflect on the point of college, and the idea that there is so much more going on in higher education beyond setting oneself up for a future career. Returning years later to finish my degree, I now agree with Forbes contributor Derek Newton; “Foremost, earnings are a terrible way to measure the value of going to college. Doing so commercializes and minimizes everything about it.”

In college, you learn that the world is bigger than the community you grew up in, that critical thinking and being informed (understanding the difference between a good source and a bad source) is far more important than the piece of paper you’re awarded upon finishing. And mostly, you learn the value of studying things that change how you see the world: art, history, music and culture.

No, this is not a column bashing higher education. This is a column loving college, and arguing that it needs to be more accessible. And that $40,000 is an absurd price to pay for something we should be encouraging people to pursue.

Instead, I’m arguing for reform; reforming the idea that you should attend college the year after you graduate high school without having lived on your own or knowing what you like to do; reforming pushing traditional education on each type of learner; reforming the institutions so they don’t set people up to fail from debilitating debt after graduation; and reforming the understanding that the value of learning can be monetized.

Because the current system isn’t working. And education is important for so many reasons beyond a career. Like the 21-year-old Emily vehemently understood (although incompletely), something has to change.

Emily Erickson is a freelance writer and bartender originally from Wisconsin, with a degree in sociology and an affinity for playing in the mountains.

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